Indigenous inclusivity: turning the tide on the Columbus legacy

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • October 6, 2016

At issue: Columbus Day is disrespectful to indigenous peoples.
Our take: The name should be relinquished.

This coming Monday, Emerson students will have a precious day off. Many will consider it a day for relaxation. Some might attend rare Sunday night parties. Others may take advantage of extra sleep or time for homework. But all of them will be doing this under the guise of a “holiday” called Columbus Day.

We implore Emerson College to use its power to rename this day off, at least in this academic community, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. For reasons already discussed in Beacon correspondent Katherine Burn’s article from last year, “Columbus Day’s ship has sailed,” Columbus Day’s ship has...well, sailed. TLDR; colonialism and the destruction of native culture is his namesake. To honor the indigenous people of the Americas and take a stand as an inclusive school with zero-tolerance for racist practices, we should relinquish the offensive title.

 Columbus Day is only recognized by 23 states, leaving even some eastern states in the dust. Neither Vermont nor New Hampshire offers work or school holidays on that dreaded Monday, and for most of the country, the day passes unmarked. Tennessee even designates Columbus Day as the Friday after Thanksgiving, further adding to the confusion. But none of these states have the same historical connection to Columbus as New England does, especially Massachusetts. Of the approximately 30,000 Native Americans living the Massachusetts area prior to Puritan landing and subsequent Massachusetts Bay Colony, nearly 90 percent were killed by disease and violence over the course of the 17th century. Continuing to recognize Columbus as a historical hero perpetuates the colonial ambivalence towards Native peoples that resulted in genocide.

A bevy of cities have recently joined Berkeley, California, since it first celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 1992. Minneapolis and Seattle adopted the holiday in 2014; Portland, Oregon, and Albuquerque last year; our neighbor Cambridge made the change in June. Denver and Phoenix followed suit just this week. Even if neither Massachusetts nor Boston choose to drop Columbus Day, there’s nothing stopping Emerson as an institution from making the switch. Brown University voted to rename the day in February, and there’s an ongoing petition at nearby Brandeis University.

By rethinking how we name this day, our institution can demonstrate its respect for the perspectives of indigenous citizens, both within and outside of our academic community. But there’s an important lesson for artists here, too. We’ve learned and packaged this Columbus colonial narrative the same way—the white, male, western way—for far too long. It’s not only rational to amend the holiday’s hallmark on our calendars, but it’s also crucial to teach Americans (young Americans especially), to seek out historical narratives from the voices that aren’t traditionally published in our textbooks. We are a college of creators. We understand the power of the identity of the author, the authority of the author, and how elevating a diversity of voices expands our understanding of each other and, consequently, our collective history. 

For years, Emerson has been the home of artists and activists. For centuries, the land we and colleges all across the country occupy was home to indigenous peoples whose way of life will be forever tarnished by colonialism. We can’t alter the past, but we can change the way we move forward by relinquishing the Columbus day title to respect the indigenous people of the Americas.