Students question value of Columbus Day celebration

As Harvard students celebrated Columbus Day this Monday by sleeping in, Yalies went to class as usual.

The difference in Harvard and Yale’s calendars is just one example of the split that has occurred on college campuses across the country over whether universities should celebrate Columbus Day.

Columbus Day was first celebrated on Oct. 12, 1792. Annual celebrations did not begin, however, until 1920. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared Columbus Day a national holiday and decided it would be on the second Monday of October.

Federal law dictates that federal offices and public schools must observe Columbus Day. In addition, many cities celebrate by staging parades. But with the current national trend toward political correctness and equal rights, Columbus Day has come under attack again and again.

John Harabedian ’04, former president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, ANAAY, said he thinks Columbus Day should not be celebrated at all. Instead, Harabedian said, people should recognize Indigenous People’s Day. He was part of a large campus demonstration in support of Indigenous People’s Day last year.

“Our activities could be seen as protest because they force people to stop and question what Columbus Day truly commemorates and to reflect on the repercussions that have resulted from the actions of such explorers like Columbus,” Harabedian said. “It is important to remember that this country’s founding — and the development of most modern societies — has cost the lives of many indigenous populations and incurred the extinction of countless numbers of human beings.”

Major cities also have trouble reconciling the Columbus Day controversy. Denver officially stopped holding its annual Columbus Day parade for nine years. Today, the parade has been reborn, but is held in the midst of constant protests. Denver is just one city out of many across the country that has had to modify its celebrations.

Nicole Willis ’05, the current president of ANAAY, said she is especially impassioned about the idea of Columbus Day being celebrated as a national holiday in cities across the country.

“ANAAY is opposed to the celebration of Columbus Day, as it is a virtual slap in the face to have a figure representative of colonialism and the deaths of millions celebrated yearly by the American public,” Willis said. “How would the United States feel if it was deemed that we would now celebrate Bin Laden day, Hitler day or Saddam Hussein day?”

Despite the controversy the holiday has sparked across the country, Yale Dean of Administrative Affairs John Meeske said holding classes on Columbus Day and overlooking the holiday is not an action Yale takes for political reasons.

“We have a general policy at Yale of ignoring holidays that come up during the term. We treat Columbus Day like we treat all other holidays,” Meeske said.

The exception to this general rule is Martin Luther King Day, which the Yale faculty voted to observe in 2001.

Policies on holidays differ from college to college. Even among the Ivies, there are huge discrepancies. Harvard chooses to celebrate all national holidays. Cornell has a fall break over Columbus Day. Brown has classes off on Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Day but not on Veterans’ Day or Presidents’ Day. Columbia celebrates Labor Day and Martin Luther King Day. Meanwhile, the University of Connecticut, a state school, only has Labor Day off.

Meeske said Yale professors ultimately determine the calendar.

“I just pull together the information and give it to a faculty committee to vote on,” Meeske said.

Theodore Goff ’07 said he disagreed with this practice.

“I think the students should have a say in the matter,” Goff said.

Even those who are opposed to calling off classes for Columbus Day argue that students should have a day off in recognition of Indigenous People’s Day.

“It would be nice if there was a reminder of the true implications of Columbus’ arrival, and one way to do this might be by not having classes,” Willis said.

To celebrate the holiday, ANAAY planned an array of ceremonies, including dancing, drumming and singing on Cross Campus. Throughout the day, the information table the group set up attracted students, many of whom remarked on the significance of ANAAY’s message.

“It is extremely important that we recognize the suffering, displacement and cultural decimation of native peoples, especially on such a politically charged holiday,” Ben Siegel ’07 said.

A few international students said they did not share the same opinion as American students.

“They can celebrate it if they want to,” Rudolf Simone ’06, who is from Switzerland, said.

A Greek student who declined to give her name said she found the whole ceremony strange.

“This is absurd,” she said. “What are they doing?”

The ceremony included participants from outside Yale as well. Cornell sophomore A. J. Cook, who came to Yale for the Indigenous People’s Day celebration, said there were fewer crowds than he would have liked.

“We had our day at Cornell on Friday, since we are now on fall break, and we had a lot more spectators and student participation,” Cook said. “I think it would be a lot more effective if people had the day off — the students seem kind of preoccupied with school.”

Willis said she thinks celebrating Indigenous People’s Day is much more meaningful than a celebration of Christopher Columbus himself.

“Many schools celebrate the holiday, and many celebrate it by getting the day off, such as Cornell,” said Willis. “It is simple for anyone to see the day is a celebration devoid of historical accuracy.”

Andrew Korn ’05 said he found the celebration “moving.”

“It is nice to be exposed to a different point of view,” Korn said.

A drum group passionately beats out a traditional song in celebration of Indigenous People's Day, sponsored by the Association of Native Americans at Yale.
Eric Seymour
A drum group passionately beats out a traditional song in celebration of Indigenous People's Day, sponsored by the Association of Native Americans at Yale.

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