The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Columbus Day marked a key battle in the History Wars of the 1990s

Clashes helped shatter old myths — but did they produce lasting change?

People in Berkeley, Calif., mark the first Indigenous Peoples' Day, Oct. 10, 1992. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

Another Columbus Day is upon us. The first official U.S. celebration of Columbus came in 1892 on the 400th anniversary of his journey. Chicago hosted the famous World’s Columbian Exposition to celebrate it the following year. Italian Americans, facing discrimination, actively advocated for and organized Columbus Day celebrations to symbolize Italian contributions to the Americas.

In 1934, the Knights of Columbus, an international Roman Catholic fraternal organization, was instrumental in persuading President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim Columbus Day a holiday. It was designated a federal holiday in 1968.

But then, in the 1990s, the tides shifted. Because of activism by Native American groups, many Americans began to recognize Columbus Day as a symbol of colonialism and conquest. Debates about Columbus’s legacy and the holiday broadened to focus on other questions about public memory, including depictions of race in public monuments in the American West.

How we remember the past became hotly contested as the culture wars between liberals and the ascendant New Right raged through the 1990s before quieting down. Last year’s racial justice demonstrations revived questions about the Columbus Day holiday and public monuments. As these debates continue, the History Wars of the 1990s can show us that compromise and accommodation can temporarily defuse controversy — but tempt us to postpone the harder work of seeking justice and truth.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan called for a nationwide celebration to mark the 1992 quincentennial of Columbus’s arrival in what Europeans labeled a “New World.” Conservatives pointed to Columbus’s “discovery” as a foundation of American greatness. Native activists — empowered by the American Indian Movement and pan-Indian organizing dating to the civil rights movement — embraced new scholarship that challenged traditional narratives of European discovery and colonization, instead labeling them conquest and genocide.

In both scholarly and popular circles in the early 1990s, debates about the legacy of Columbus and of westward expansion became important aspects of the History Wars.

Conservative voices opposed calls to reconsider long-held national narratives of American exceptionalism. They challenged the nation’s first (voluntary) National Standards for History education.

Public controversies exploded. For example, protesters and conservative members of Congress rejected a proposed Smithsonian exhibit that invited visitors to consider the consequences of dropping atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II. They didn’t want U.S. motives or heroism questioned. Similar coalitions protested a Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit that aimed to complicate how frontier imagery had shaped popular understandings of the nation’s history.

Nationwide, the History Wars featured battles over curriculum content and museum exhibit interpretation.

But there were particularly intense debates in the West, where they coincided with — and helped shape — planned anniversary celebrations of Columbus’s landing. Recasting Columbus’s exploration as colonialism, Native activists persuaded Berkeley, Calif., to hold the first U.S. celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

It wasn’t just about Columbus, though.

For a century, the ideas of historian Frederick Jackson Turner had shaped scholarly and popular ideas about the place of Western exploration, settlement and conflict in the nation’s history. Turner’s “frontier thesis” stated that a repeated process of frontier development had enabled the growth of American democracy. Now scholars were coming to see Western history instead as a story of White conquest of Western land and peoples.

As a result, teachers, activists and others began to challenge the design and placement of “pioneer monuments,” markers that uncritically reproduced the mythic version of Western history advanced by Turner and his successors.

For example, San Francisco’s 1894 Pioneer Monument celebrated California’s White settlement. The 47-foot-tall monument consisted of a massive granite pillar adorned with bronze statues and reliefs. Together, they portrayed California’s history as an arc that ascended from American Indian “savagery” depicted in stereotypical scenes, through European exploration and settlement, to U.S. statehood.

When in the early 1990s the city decided to relocate the monument to accommodate a new Main Library, the plans sparked protests.

Preservationists didn’t want it moved at all because, they said, it dated to before the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of the city.

Native activists thought the offensive 800-ton monument should be thrown into San Francisco Bay.

The city ultimately moved the monument to a more prominent location, erecting an interpretive plaque explaining the devastating impact of White settlement on Native populations that few bothered to read.

Elsewhere, a new statue was dedicated in 1993 in Portland, Ore., to mark the sesquicentennial of the Oregon Trail, which had helped connect the Midwest to the West for commerce and settlement in the early 19th century. The monument portrayed a White frontier family: stalwart father, self-sacrificing mother and strapping young son symbolizing hope for the future. The Oregon Trail Coordinating Council, which donated the statue, intended it as “a metaphor for all of us who have traveled one trail or another to Oregon.” Similar pioneer monuments had been erected throughout the American West after World War II.

But in the context of the intensifying History Wars, the otherwise typical statue evoked an atypical response. Some objected to its planned placement in the city’s prominent North Park blocks, arguing that it whitewashed the violence of conquest.

By invoking notions of manifest destiny, the statue’s title, “The Promised Land,” helped ensure controversy, even capturing the attention of conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who seized the chance to celebrate the statue and castigate its critics.

Portlanders ultimately chose an alternative location, hiding it in plain sight in less visited Chapman Square and tempering its manifest destiny message by surrounding it with footprints representing diverse peoples and animals living in Oregon.

These compromises — statues erected, but in less prominent locations or with added historical context — reflected the nation’s ambivalence about the History Wars. Indigenous San Franciscans continued to seethe about the Pioneer Monument’s celebration of European colonization long after the city installed its interpretive plaque. But their complaints gained little traction with mainstream audiences, despite the public’s receptiveness to some of the messages in the early part of the decade.

Elsewhere, conservative communities such as Colorado Springs and Albuquerque installed monuments that evoked traditionalist, celebratory interpretations of Western conquest and settlement, while balancing them in small ways by including images or secondary works that reminded viewers of Native American histories. But these didn’t require viewers to question their commitment to the mythic version of the West.

The accommodations and compromises forged in the 1990s help explain why there were so many statues and monuments to see with new eyes as anti-racist activism ramped up over the past decade. Finally, in 2018, San Francisco removed the most controversial statue grouping from the Pioneer Monument, which activists had been pushing for since the early ’90s.

After the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, protesters toppled the century-old “Pioneer Father” and “Pioneer Mother” statues on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene. Throughout summer 2020, Black Lives Matter demonstrators and counterprotesters filled the streets of Portland, radiating from Chapman Square, site of the again controversial “Promised Land” statue that the city eventually removed to protect it from vandalism.

Columbus Day 2020 inspired additional Portland protests. What activists called an “Indigenous Peoples’ Day of Rage” targeted symbols of colonialism, including an equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, and smashed windows at the Oregon History Center museum, once the temporary home of the “Promised Land” statue.

Today, traditional strongholds including Columbus, Ohio, have distanced themselves from the holiday. (The city officially celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead and removed its Columbus statue from its city hall). Communities across the nation continue to grapple with the future of their own statues and holidays with ties to colonialism and racism.

Looking back to the History Wars of the 1990s should remind us, however, that paying lip service to the truth about the violence of White conquest and settlement while reinforcing old narratives is not enough. Reinterpreting racist statues and replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day are small steps in the right direction. But until we grapple more deeply with the legacy of colonialism and racism that these debates bring to light, we should expect many unhappy returns of the 1990s History Wars.