As we approach Monday’s national observance honoring Christopher Columbus, I am joined by many fellow Native and non-Native Americans and Washington-area residents in reconsidering Columbus’s actions against Indigenous populations and indeed the justification for honoring and memorializing this complicated and divisive historical figure.
We know the history of Christopher Columbus. He embarked on a very consequential journey in 1492. He was not the first European to visit present-day North America. In fact, he discovered nothing. For Native peoples, his legacy is clear. He murdered, tortured and enslaved the indigenous Taíno, Lucayan, Arawak and Cigüayos. He introduced death and human suffering on a scale unknown to these peoples. In a letter to his benefactor King Ferdinand II of Spain, Columbus described his conquest: “I found many islands inhabited by men without number, of all which I took possession . . . no one objecting.” They did object, and they did fight. Indigenous peoples continue to fight, reclaim, resist, protest, create and, in many cases, thrive.
Columbus’s early incursions across these lands began a 500-plus-year ascendancy of European Christians and their descendants. It is a history of loss and trauma for many that includes the attempted extermination of Native peoples, the abduction and enslavement of African peoples, the continued devaluing of Black life and the institutionalized racism and bigotry that confront those who are Black, Indigenous or people of color. Columbus should be considered the progenitor of white supremacy. Let us remember him for that.
To be clear: Columbus is famous because he was a thief. He took resources, lands, personal belongings and many lives. He abducted human beings. He stole the futures of countless people. That was his impact.
On the side of his fountain, not far from the depiction of Columbus perched above a forlorn Native man, the memorial inscription proclaims that he “gave mankind a new world.” Here, mankind is exclusively White, Christian and European — it is explicit on whose behalf his quest was made. The world he discovered was not new. It was old and home to many families and distinct cultural communities.
And again, let us be clear and honest on what Columbus accomplished and why those accomplishments continue to be celebrated. The story of Christopher Columbus is broken. His fountain is broken. It is beyond time to take this fountain down.