Columbus Day is a federal holiday that I will no longer celebrate.
I used to celebrate Columbus Day. It was sort of a mandatory holiday. I grew up in a small town in Iowa called Columbus Junction. Located near the confluence of the Iowa and Cedar Rivers, the residents of Columbus Junction celebrate Columbus Day with a parade and a homecoming football game. In high school I was first chair trombone and would march from the high school parking lot to Main Street. The sound of the snare drums would echo as we passed under the overpass on Main Street. The football game was always cold. Our 1970’s royal blue band uniforms with feathered hats would offer us little protection from Iowa weather in October. Columbus Junction is not a large town. There are less than 2,000 people who live in the “CJ.” I remember that I always looked forward to the parade and the various homecoming events. Columbus Day was a holiday that I happily celebrated.
Where did my exuberance for Columbus Day come from?
I remember being told by my teachers that Columbus “discovered America.” As a kid I would think that it was so neat that I lived in a town named after the guy who “discovered” America. History teachers have so much power. I was never taught that Iowa was named after a Native American tribe with the same name. I was never taught that Iowa used to be home to over 15 Native American tribes.
From hundreds to one
A web search brought me to a site that offers a brief history of Columbus Junction. One paragraph immediately caught my eye:
For it [Columbus Junction] was also, back then [late 1840’s], a favorite trading place for the Indians of the area. And in those early days hundreds at a time would gather there.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Columbus Junction’s total population was 1,900. The total number of people who self-identified as Native Americans was 1. Here is a question for my history teachers at Cotter Elementary, Columbus Middle School, and Columbus Community High School:
If hundreds of Native Americans used to “gather” in the area near Columbus Junction in the late 1840’s and in 2000 there was only 1 Native American living in Columbus Junction, what happened? What happened to the Native Americans who were indigenous to the region? The answers to my questions are not easy to find. I’m not a history teacher, but it looks like the Native American peoples of Iowa were adversely affected by the influx of white settlers in the 1800’s:
The white man…brought with him disease – primarily smallpox – which ravaged through the native villages.
Successive treaties during the 1800’s surrendered Iowa title of much of their lands to the United States Government. In 1836, the Iowa signed a treaty by which they were moved to a reservation on the Kansas-Nebraska border. Later treaties were to diminish the size of that reservation. In the 1880’s many Iowa began moving into Indian territory in Oklahoma.
The power of mythology in the hands of history teachers
I wonder if I would have celebrated Columbus Day in Columbus Junction if I had been given a more accurate history by my teachers?
- Christopher Columbus did not “discover” America. (How can you discover a place if someone is already there?)
- Native Americans were systematically displaced from Iowa by white people.
According to Jennings:
The first people to inhabit Louisa County [Note that Columbus Junction is located in Louisa County] were the Mound Builders. These pre-historic people left traces of their occupancy which are notable today. The village of Toolesboro contains the largest number of those remaining mounds. Regrettably, many have been obliterated by years of cultivation. These mounds were found along the bluffs of most of the rivers in what is now Louisa County.
These ancient peoples were replaced by the Woodlawn Indians who remained in possession of the land until the coming of the white man. The white men started to settle here even before it had been acquired by the dubious purchase called “The Blackhawk Purchase.”
After the area was acquired by the U.S. Government, white settlers from Europe started to come in large numbers. Two of the predominant groups were the Welch and Germans with a sprinkling of Swedes, English, Irish and native born whites from Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Hundreds of Native Americans used to gather in Columbus Junction, Iowa in the 1840’s. In 2000, only 1 out of 1,900 “CJ” residents were Native American. Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America was the spark that ignited the enslavement, killing, raping, and forceful displacement of Native Americans in the United States. Columbus Day is a holiday that masks history. It covers up the systematic and institutionalized oppression of Native Americans by Euro American White people with a mythological tale of “discovery.” Native Americans lived in what is now Columbus Junction, Iowa. It is unethical to forget that fact. (For a more accurate history, please read Christopher Columbus and the Indians by Howard Zinn)
Day of Indigenous Resistance
I cannot celebrate Columbus Day because I feel that it is a federally sanctioned holiday that celebrates the systematic and intentional campaign of genocide against indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.
On the second Monday in October I will celebrate and promote the Day of Indigenous Resistance. I would love it if Columbus Junction stopped celebrating Columbus Day and instead celebrated the Day of Indigenous Resistance. The parade and the high school homecoming would be part of a celebration of truth and social justice. I would gladly put on the royal blue band uniform and play my trombone in the first annual Columbus Junction Day of Indigenous Resistance Parade.