Municipalities, businesses, and educational institutions across the U.S. celebrated disjointed holidays this Oct. 9. While some communities recognized Columbus Day, others paid homage to the millions of people dispossessed by Christopher Columbus—and the conquest in which he played a part—by observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day. New London public schools and Connecticut College joined the ranks of the latter.
While Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a relatively new phenomenon, it’s older than we think, and Columbus Day, by contrast, is a younger tradition than many people realize. Natalie Avalos, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, noted that “there has been a movement for more than 20 years” opposing Columbus Day.
Avalos identified Glenn Morris, a Shawnee member of the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado and Professor of Political Science at University of Colorado, Denver, as a leading figure in the movement to reject Columbus Day. In a 2007 column for Indian Country Today, Morris writes: “We have been working for the past 18 years to dismantle this anti-Indian celebration [in Colorado],” dating the movement at 28 years of age. Morris adds that although Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492, the idea of his heroism was not introduced until four centuries later, when “Manifest Destiny was declared a success at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the first time that Columbus was elevated to national icon status.” And even then, a holiday was still not established for years to come.
“Columbus Day was brought into the national consciousness in the 1930s by Italian-American groups,” Avalos remarked. “It’s not a part of our original sense of national identity—this is a 20th Century manifestation.”
The relative newness of Columbus Day, however, does not prevent some Americans from heralding its importance. Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh, a New London real estate agent, recently affirmed her belief in Columbus’s heroism and significance as a Christian figure before the New London Board of Education, which she urged to reverse the holiday’s renaming and refocusing.
“This whole Columbus situation is based on lies,” said Hopkins-Cavanagh in an interview with the Voice. “He didn’t commit genocide; he didn’t bring any diseases; he didn’t lose his way… Nobody knew that the Americas existed.”
Hopkins-Cavanagh is the hostess of the conservative talk radio show “Lori on Liberty,” a former Republican candidate for U.S. Congress, and founder of the American Liberty Center, whose purpose she described as “to identify and expose groups that counter our uniquely American liberties.”
She perceives the establishment of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as well as all denunciations of Columbus, as the product of the persecution of Christians in the U.S. “Why are they picking on Columbus?” she posed. “Well, because he brought Christianity.”
According to most scholarly and historical texts, however, Christianity was far from Columbus’s defining characteristic.
“Columbus was not a Christian by any means,” commented Avalos. “He was a mercenary, a hired soldier.”
Leo Garofalo, Associate Professor of History at the College, explained that although Columbus “defined himself as [Christian],” among his contemporaries, “the people who wanted evangelization [of the Americas] were his most vociferous critics.” Garofalo clarified that when conquerors eliminated large swaths of the population—through the use of both explicit violence and the inadvertent introduction of diseases to which indigenous people’s immune systems were not accustomed—the mass deaths hindered efforts for religious indoctrination. “[Bartolomé de] las Casas,” he offered for example, “says that people like Columbus are terrible because they destroy the population before they can be converted.”
“From the point of view of the Spanish Crown,” Garofalo added, “they declare Columbus’s mission a failure. They’re certainly more Christian than Columbus.”
To back up her staunch belief in Columbus’s contested heroism, Hopkins-Cavanagh referenced Rafael Ortiz, a Puerto Rican man from South Carolina whom she identified as a historian on Columbus.
“I am not a historian,” Ortiz said over the phone, “I am just a regular guy.” He explained that he began his Columbus research because, “[he] saw Facebook memes that were saying Columbus was an evil man.”
“I got the full biography by his son called The Life of Admiral Christopher Columbus,” Ortiz said. He also based his research on Christopher Columbus’s letters back to the crown and put his findings into a self-published book titled Christopher Columbus the Hero: Defending Columbus from Modern-Day Revisionism and a Facebook page with 174 likes called “Official Christopher Columbus.”
“First of all, Columbus wasn’t looking down on the Indians,” Ortiz said of his findings, “he called them handsome, good-looking, generous, kind, etc. That doesn’t sound like a racist.”
On this note, Garofalo clarified: “What defines those letters is that they’re telling the Crown what they know the Crown needs and wants to hear, to fund [the conquest] economically, to give it legitimacy as part of the Christian mission.”
Historians tend to read Columbus’s more laudatory language, he added, as a marketing ploy. “There are some anthropological elements that are probably correct,” Garofalo said, “the facts, when they’re useful, he includes.” Garofalo noted that, recognizing the success of the Portuguese slave trade, “Columbus says [indigenous people] are docile, the natural slaves as defined by Aristotle.”
While individual perceptions of Columbus’s letters may vary, there’s little debate among historians regarding his heroism.
“When it comes to studying Columbus, it really does take someone who has scholarship,” commented Chris Newell, Museum Education Supervisor at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Of Hopkins-Cavanagh’s efforts, he observed: “I think she is in the extreme… She basically advocated for the New London Board of Ed to adopt a curriculum based on a non-peer-reviewed book that hadn’t even been published yet.”
“A lot of people write about the past, but that doesn’t mean they’re historians,” Garofalo pointed out. “Historians have scoured, as long as there’s been a historical profession, to find multiple historical documents and compare.
“Most of the information about Columbus that we have is written by Bartolomé de las Casas,” he noted. Of the biography written by Ferdinand Columbus, Garofalo added: “When [Columbus’s] son writes, he’s trying to re-vindicate the family name… He’s like a lawyer.”
Despite Ferdinand’s best efforts, revisionist accounts and sanitized versions of Christopher Columbus’s expedition are losing ground. As noted earlier, New London public schools and Connecticut College now observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day, joining 67 other universities, municipalities, and states across the U.S. And New London, like the vast majority of cities across the country, was founded on land stolen from indigenous people—in this case, from the Pequot peoples. At a teach-in event designed to educate the community on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, representatives of the Mashantucket Pequot and Eastern Pequot Tribal Nations explained the importance of recognition as a first step.
“We are standing in Nameaug; that’s the tribal name,” said Derek Strong, a New London resident and member of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, of the land that is now Connecticut College property. He added that the Thames River was formerly the Pequot River, and because of the presence of the College and the Coast Guard Academy, “There’s nowhere for an aboriginal person to access our aboriginal waterways.”
Representatives at the teach-in regarded the observance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an introductory but important step. “The narrative needs to be changed,” said Brianna, a representative from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.
During our earlier conversation, Newell mentioned that recognition under the blanket term “indigenous,” while significant, is only a first step. “When speaking the English language, when talking about things that are political in nature,” said Newell, “we will tend to use terms like ‘American Indian,’ ‘Native American,’ ‘Indigenous,’ ‘First Nations,’ kind of interchangeably, because we’re not really defined by those terms. I am not a ‘Native American.’ I self-identify as Passamaquoddy.”
This type of generalization, Newell added, perpetuates misinformation across a diverse array of indigenous groups. “One of the big problems in America is that we are constantly in pop culture, in sports mascots, in Hollywood, put in this one box of culture… which is so far removed from actual reality,” he noted.
Similarly, Avalos commented that totalizing stereotypes about indigenous peoples and myths of Columbus’s Christian heroism go hand-in-hand. “Misinformation is one of the central forces of colonialism,” she said. While education and recognition combat misinformation, symbolic efforts like the renaming of Indigenous Peoples’ Day make up only a small part of the work necessary to repairing the damage of colonization.