Do you know the difference between history and public memory? History is the recording of events as they happened, whereas public memory is the way in which communities remember events. However, even these definitions have some problems. We all have heard the saying “history is written by the victors” and this is very true especially in American history which is often recorded from a wealthy, white, male perspective. This causes the voices of less represented people (such as the colonized, women, Indigenous people, slaves, etc.) to be absent from the historic record. The celebration of Columbus Day is a good example of this and the way public memory can differ so greatly from the actual historic events.
Many communities in the United States celebrate Columbus Day to remember the contribution of Christopher Columbus to the history of our country. Often this celebration promotes the false myth that Columbus “discovered” the Americas and made friends with the Indigenous people he met. But this simply isn’t true. The image of Columbus as an explorer and adventurer is part of our country’s public memory. But is this image accurate? Phillippa Pitts, writing a joint-initiative between Cultural Survival, Italian-Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day, and the United American Indians of New England, reminds readers that Columbus cannot only be remembered for sailing across the Atlantic; he also “was a genocidal slave trader who perpetrated an abhorrent list of violent crimes first against the Indigenous Taíno people on the island of Ayiti (Hispaniola) and subsequently across the Caribbean.” The treasure, exotic goods, and enslaved Indigenous people Columbus brought back to Spain as repayment to his investors were extracted by Columbus and his men by force; and are regularly not part of the public memory or celebration of Columbus Day. Accounts from other ship captains, government officials, and friars who traveled with Columbus detail his use of murder, amputation, torture, forced labor, rape, and mass enslavement to control and brutalize the Indigenous people while enriching himself. Pitts analyzes these accounts explaining that “Columbus cannot be salvaged by claims that he was a man of his time: even his contemporaries condemned the atrocities he committed.”
Some states and communities have started to correct their public memory and recognition of first contact by abolishing Columbus Day and celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day instead. Observances of Indigenous Peoples Day often focus on local Indigenous tribes, their art, music, history, and traditions. In this Active-Book, we will explore the true history of first contact, learn more about Indigenous people in the Western hemisphere, explore how first contact impacted our families, and get hands-on with projects that demonstrate traditions from different Indigenous cultures.