Published: October 10, 2016

Not So Simple: Understanding the History Behind Columbus Day

Alaka Wali, Curator of North American Anthropology, Negaunee Integrative Research Center


And what it means to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Two adults and a small child walk through the Ancient Americas exhibition. A map of the globe is on the wall to the left, and many pots are in a display case to the right.

Christopher Columbus Day became a holiday in the United States in 1937. Throughout Central and South America, the celebration of this encounter between Europeans and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas is celebrated as Día de la Raza or Día de la Hispanidad.

As with many historical events, the perceptions of the day’s significance and meaning differ widely depending on who gets to tell the story. The national celebrations throughout the Americas are meant to uphold the founding myths of our nations. Celebrations in Italian-American communities uphold the contributions of their immigrant ancestors. But more recently, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas have used the moment to remind all of us of their continued and resilient presence here, despite the massive and profound disruption to their cultures and acts of genocide they experienced over the subsequent centuries. Understanding this history of encounter and its consequences for the present-day relationships between all of us is part of my role as an anthropologist. 

Our exhibition at the Field, The Ancient Americas, documents the immense creativity with which the first peoples solved the problems of making habitable landscapes, building diverse societies, and managing natural resources. The exhibition also explores the dilemmas of these societies—the rise of inequality as empires formed and grew, and the collapse of whole societies in the face of environmental change. These cultural and social processes parallel similar processes happening across the oceans. By the time Columbus arrived, Indigenous peoples of the Americas had a wealth of knowledge to offer the “Old World.” The great “Columbian Exchange”—the immense flow of American domesticated plants and animals accompanied by deep knowledge of their use to Europe and beyond, and the reverse flow of goods and knowledge from the Old World to the Americas—reshaped the human experience all over the world permanently. Corn, domesticated by the Americans, is now indispensable to the cuisines of Asia and Africa. Potatoes, cultivated in the Andes, became a European staple. Horses from Spain traveled back the other way and became essential to life on the Great Plains. Native American women worked magic with tiny brightly colored glass beads made in Italy, using them to adorn garments and other useful objects.            

As the initial encounter and exchanges transitioned into an expanded and accelerated settlement by Europeans of the Americas, however, Indigenous peoples steadily lost ground—literally. They were displaced from their homelands, forced onto reservations, or left without any land base at all in some instances. In Central and South America, indigenous peoples were enslaved, forced to work in gold mines or on plantations. In North America, people experienced forced marches such as the “Trail of Tears,” during which many died, and massacres such as the one of Cheyenne and Arapahoe at Sand Creek in Colorado in 1864. By the time the United States government declared the second Monday in October as an official holiday celebrating Columbus, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas had lost the majority of the territories they had once occupied. 

Still, despite this trauma and suffering, Indigenous ways of being, cultural practices and even relationships to the land continued. Generation after generation, elders told stories and demonstrated to their children and grandchildren how to live “in a good way,” how to plant corn, harvest wild rice, hunt and fish, herd livestock, make reed boats or dugout canoes, and more. At the end of The Ancient Americas exhibition, a large video display portrays the continuities of livelihood strategies and craft traditions that have sustained indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. The videos tell us that the remarkable qualities of resilience and perseverance that characterize Indigenous peoples today. As an anthropologist, the exhibition brings home to me that neither historical nor cultural processes are linear or simple.

On September 14, 2016, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We can choose to celebrate great achievements of Indigenous peoples, the contributions of immigrants, and the ways all of us have been shaped by the events of these last 524 years. At the same time, we can recognize that celebration should be tempered by a sober remembrance of the pain, violence, and sacrifice experienced by so many that also shape our present-day experience. 

Recommended reading by author Charles C. Mann:

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. (Second edition). 2006, Random House

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  2012, Random House

Alaka Wali
Curator of North American Anthropology, Negaunee Integrative Research Center

Alaka Wali is a curator of North American Anthropology in the Science and Education Division.  She was the founding director of the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change from 1995- 2010.  She currently curates the sizeable North American collection which includes a contemporary urban collection.  She also works closely with colleagues in the Science Action Center.