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The Long-Standing History of Columbus Day

October 10th, 2013 Seasonal

Held on the second Monday of October, Columbus Day has been celebrated unofficially for hundreds of years. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt named it an official national holiday in 1937 to mark Italian explorer Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World on October 12, 1492 with his ships the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. 

Backed by Spanish monarchs, Columbus set forth on his two-month journey confidently planning to reach China and India, instead landing in the Bahamas. This would later be seen as an embarrassing blunder for the master navigator who was officially titled "Admiral of the Ocean Sea."

Land-ho
Throughout that September in 1492 as land drew near, Columbus' men spotted floating vegetation and exotic birds, leading them to believe they were close to their goal of reaching the shores of Japan. But, by early October, with no land seen, the crew began to grow impatient. Luckily, on October 12, land was spotted and the crew's fears were alleviated. Although the call of land was from men on the Pinta, Columbus (who was on the Nina) would claim the honor for himself.

Later he sighted Cuba and the island of Hispaniola, which he mistook for parts of Asia. The confusion stemmed from the Europeans not knowing that an entire continent, as well as two oceans, divided them from their goal. They thought that it was only the Atlantic Ocean that lay between them and the Asian regions where they sought wealth.

Once in the New World, Columbus gathered gold, spices and "Indian" slaves to bring back to Spain in a show of accomplishment. It was not until his third journey across the Atlantic that Columbus realized it was not India or China that he landed on, but a previously undiscovered continent unknown to Europeans. We know today that centuries earlier Vikings, including Leif Eriksson, likely landed in North America and set up small colonies there.

Columbus would travel across the Atlantic several more times before his death in 1506.

The first recorded celebration of the day was in New York City on the 300th anniversary of Columbus' arrival. Today, the city continues to hold the country's largest Columbus Day parade, though it is frequently met with protests from Native American groups. These groups and those who support the same cause note that Columbus discovered nothing, since natives had been living there for hundreds of years, and once on the land Columbus' crew subjugated and inflicted violence on the peaceful natives.

Alternatives to Columbus Day
Alternatives to Columbus Day have been gaining traction for years. In response to Columbus' treatment of the native population he discovered, holidays like Indigenous Peoples Day and Native Americans Day are celebrated in select areas around the country. Instead of celebrating Columbus landing in the Americas, which they see as the event that opened the door to exploitation and colonialism this side of the Atlantic, Indigenous Peoples Day and Native Americans Day celebrate the culture and history of the Americas' native populations and their fight against oppression. South Dakota is well-known for celebrating Native Americans Day. The state passed legislation proclaiming 1990 as the Year of Reconciliation. The state has been celebrating Native Americans Day in place of Columbus Day ever since. Berkeley, Calif. also changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, and celebrates each year with a pow-wow where residents can enjoy Native American food, crafts and dance.