Columbus Day is a prominent celebration in the greater New Haven community. Traditionally, New Haven has held one of the largest Columbus Day celebrations in Connecticut despite it not being directly observed by Yale students or acknowledged on the University calendar.
But I have a question for Yale students and faculty who reside in New Haven on the ancestral homelands of the Quinnipiac People: Why do we celebrate Christopher Columbus, a man credited for “discovering” the Americas, when he was directly responsible for the rape, enslavement and genocide of indigenous people?
I credit this veneration of Christopher Columbus to the ignorance in the greater American consciousness of the impact that Spanish colonizers had on this continent.
My ancestors and I are from the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona. My family resides in an area now called Coppermine, on the western most edge of the reservation. Here, life is drastically different from most of the United States. Electricity only arrived in our area 10 years ago. Previously, we only used generators during the day. When we need water, we do not use taps but rather are forced to haul our own water from public infrastructure that the entire community shares. Although not always directly acknowledged by my people, our conditions today can be traced to the arrival of Columbus and the legions of Spanish conquistadors that followed him.
Even to this day, the ghosts of the conquistadors still haunt and shape our historical narrative. Even our language, the way we think and speak, has been irrevocably impacted by their arrival.
Many words, including the name of my tribe, are based on the Spanish interpretation of my people. Though we are recognized as the Navajo Nation, the word “Navajo” is actually a Spanish term that was used by the earliest colonizers to describe our people. In our traditional language, Diné Bizaad, we call ourselves the Diné People.
Additionally, our cognates come not from the English language, but originate from Spanish. From childhood, my mother did not say “rice” but rather “alóóz” after the Spanish word for rice, “arroz.” Cash was not called “money” but “béeso” as a substitute for the Spanish word “peso.”
This linguistic history paints an entirely different Diné narrative than is represented in American culture. Contrary to the idyllic vision of the peaceful Native Americans sharing a Thanksgiving meal with the new immigrants to this continent as equals, we were brutally oppressed by Spanish conquistadors. These words represent foreign concepts that were brought to my people, and they represent new lifestyles that were forced on my people, all as a result of Christopher Columbus “discovering” this continent on Oct. 12, 1942.
As Americans, we do not consider Columbus a colonizer, and we focus not on the crimes committed against Native Americans but rather the few instances of mutually beneficial interactions with English and French settlers. Yet by doing this, we largely ignore major portions of history on this continent, and in a sense we are almost justifying what has occurred.
Each tribe in the Southwest, including my own, has their own narratives of the interactions with the conquistadors. Honoring Columbus year after year only serves as a way to continue to remind us of these narratives. We as indigenous peoples are forced to face modern day colonialism as we are reminded of our losses and historic oppression.
The observation of Columbus Day every year reintroduces the historical trauma that we as indigenous peoples have suffered and continue to suffer today. When Americans celebrate Columbus Day, they do not think of him as the man responsible for the first enslavement of people on this continent. They do not envision him and his men plundering the Caribbean. Most Americans do not even stop to consider that Columbus’s journey established a path for the conquistadors and other exploitive settlers to follow at the expense of the indigenous peoples of this continent.
As a Diné person, I would like to thank the members of the Yale community who helped us celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in lieu of Columbus Day yesterday. I challenge the students and faculty of our university to rise up against the narrative of Columbus and rectify the historical trauma faced by the indigenous people on whose land you now reside.
Christian Brown is a senior in Pierson College. He is president of the Association of Native Americans. Contact him at email@example.com .