Why do we honor genocide?

The calls to end the celebration of Columbus Day have a relevance today beyond recognizing the atrocities of European colonialism, writes Khury Petersen-Smith.

Christopher Columbus committed atrocities against the Indigenous peoples he encounteredChristopher Columbus committed atrocities against the Indigenous peoples he encountered

IS THE tide turning against "Columbus Day"?

In the lead-up to October 9 this year, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Austin, Texas, all declared that they would instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day on October 9.

Since activists won the renaming of Columbus Day to Native American Day in South Dakota in 1989, dozens of places across the U.S. have similarly chosen to honor Indigenous peoples rather than a man who opened the era of European colonial violence in the Americas.

In the words of Chrissie Castro, of the Los Angeles City-County Native American Indian Commission, who was part of the effort to achieve the recent victory in LA, changing the holiday is necessary to "dismantle a state-sponsored celebration of genocide of Indigenous peoples."

No doubt the heroic Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline adds to the momentum.

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WITH MORE of a challenge to Columbus Day taking place today than maybe at any time since it was established, one could ask: Why is Columbus celebrated at all in 2017?

After all, as an "explorer" (read: conqueror) for Spain and then as Spain's governor of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic), Christopher Columbus is responsible for rape, theft, torture and other forms of unspeakable violence against Indigenous people in the Caribbean.

Not surprisingly, the celebration of Columbus is therefore contested throughout Latin America.

In recent years in Chile, for example, Mapuche Indigenous activists have used the occasion of the holiday to protest historic colonization and repression today as they continue a struggle for self-determination.

In Mexico and elsewhere, Día de la Raza is celebrated as an alternative to Columbus Day. In Venezuela, where Día de la Raza had been marked since 1921, the late President Hugo Chávez renamed it Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance) in 2002. On that day in 2004, a crowd of people tore down a statue of Columbus in the capital of Caracas.

And then there is the U.S. As we organize to overturn the celebration of Columbus, it's worth asking why he is so revered in the U.S. at all.

Columbus didn't, after all, set foot on land that is part of the present-day U.S. As leftist writer Eduardo Galeano notes in his Open Veins of Latin America, Columbus was deluded--he "died convinced that he had reached Asia by the Western route. In 1492, when Spanish boats first trod the beaches of the Bahamas, the Admiral thought that these islands were an outpost of the fabulous isle of Zipango--Japan."

Yet countless places across the country are named in his honor: from Columbus, Ohio, to Columbia, South Carolina, to the nation's capital itself: the District of Columbia.

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THE HONORING of Columbus goes hand in hand with an embrace of conquest and white supremacy as central to the national project of the U.S.

For 18th century colonists who were revolting against the British crown, Columbus was a useful figure for constructing a national myth. He offered a lineage to European colonialism while bypassing the history of the British Empire's settlement in America--for which the patriots owed their immediate presence in the country, but which they were trying to distance themselves from as they waged a revolution.

President Benjamin Harrison decreed the celebration of a holiday in honor of Columbus in 1892, on the 400th anniversary of his mission. Harrison presented a myth that dates the beginning of the American project--not with the American Revolution in 1776, but with Columbus' violence in the Caribbean nearly 300 years earlier.

His proclamation called on Americans to take the day off work so they could "devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

Absent, of course, is the acknowledgment of the existence of Indigenous peoples in that history, or after.

Indeed, Harrison's celebration of Columbus' voyage--the first national one--came at a particular time in the ongoing war of the U.S. against Native peoples. Just two years before, the Army carried out its notorious massacre of Lakota people at Wounded Knee.

The "Manifest Destiny" spirit of the time further comes through in Harrison's description of the colonial success of Columbus and the U.S. as God-given: "[L]et there be expressions of gratitude to Divine Providence for the devout faith of the discoverer and for the divine care and guidance which has directed our history and so abundantly blessed our people."

It was Democrat Franklin Roosevelt who became the first president to proclaim Columbus Day as a federal holiday after a joint resolution passed by Congress in 1934.

In a 1940 statement on the holiday that Roosevelt used as part of his preparation for war, he called on Americans to continue Columbus's mission of projecting Western civilization: "The promise which Columbus's discovery gave to the world, of a new beginning in the march of human progress, has been in process of fulfillment for four centuries. Our task is now to make strong our conviction that in spite of setbacks that process will go on toward fulfillment."

If any doubt remains about whether Columbus Day is about the celebration of colonialism, white supremacy and the whitewashing of the ongoing genocide against the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, look no further than the latest presidential proclamation of Columbus Day from Donald Trump:

The permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation. Therefore, on Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions--even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity.

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THE CURRENT struggles to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day in cities and towns across the U.S. coincide with the debate about Confederate monuments throughout the country.

With three torch-lit marches this year by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in defense of a Robert E. Lee statue--the one in August taking place as part of a weekend of deadly racist violence--there can be no doubt, if there ever was one, about what these symbols represent.

Both the fight of the water protectors at Standing Rock and the Black Lives Matter movement have shone light on the genocidal foundations of the country, and how that history shapes present racist injustice.

The "take a knee" protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick that are now raging through the NFL and other professional, college and high school sports leagues throughout the country similarly call attention to the violent histories woven into the national anthem and flag--and their continuity with the present.

These conversations have fed off of each other as activists have drawn the connections between racism, empire and U.S. history.

In a rare moment of astuteness, Trump himself spoke to the far-reaching implications for challenging the symbols of white supremacy that are at the heart of the country's history. In his August 15 press conference, after defending neo-Nazis who carried out violence in Charlottesville as "good people," Trump asked just how far the opposition to Confederate statues would go:

George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? Will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think about Thomas Jefferson. You like him? Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. So you know what? It's fine. We're changing history, we're changing culture.

Yes, we are.

This questioning of the colonial history of the U.S. and the rejection of monuments to conquerors--whether the physical statues of Confederate soldiers and slave owners or holidays like Columbus Day--can only aid our current and future struggles for Indigenous self-determination and Black freedom, and against U.S. empire.