Indigenous views of Christopher Columbus

Members of Penn’s Indigenous community discuss their views of Christopher Columbus and how Indigenous people have suffered from Columbus-style colonialism.

A toppled statue of Columbus near the Minnesota State Capitol. Two people hold an End White Supremacy sign in the background.
A statue of Christopher Columbus toppled from its stand in June on the east side of the Minnesota State Capitol. (Image: Darren Thompson/Native News Online) 

Indigenous communities have been persecuted in the Americas since Christopher Columbus first came ashore on the island of Guanahani in the present-day Bahamas 528 years ago.

They have had their land stolen, people slaughtered, enslaved, and infected with diseases, women raped, children kidnapped, treaties broken, and possessions and goods plundered and looted.

There were between 5 million and 15 million Indigenous people living in North America in 1492. By the late 1800s, there were fewer than 238,000 left.

The so-called “Age of Discovery” has begot centuries of genocide.

Crashing to the ground alongside statues and monuments of slaveowners and Confederate generals, during the nationwide anti-racism and police brutality protests over the summer in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, were statues of Columbus. In several instances, Indigenous people participated in their removal.

On June 10, activists led by members of the American Indian Movement tore down a statue of Christopher Columbus at the Minnesota State Capitol. (Image: Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer)

A 10-foot bronze statue of Columbus in St. Paul, Minnesota, not far from where Floyd was killed, was toppled in June by protesters, who tied ropes around its neck and yanked it from its pedestal. Members of the American Indian Movement were among the demonstrators, and danced and sang around the fallen icon.

In a show of support for Indigenous communities, anti-racist activists, carrying signs reading “This land is Powhatan land” and “Columbus represents genocide,” pulled down a Columbus statue in Richmond, Virginia, and threw it into a lake. Members of the Richmond Indigenous Society took part in the June rally.

All of Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey inhabit Indigenous land, that of the Lenape people. Penn is home to a small but proud and passionate Indigenous community, which has existed since two Mohawk brothers, Jonathan and Philip Gayienquitioga, attended the Academy of Philadelphia in 1755.

Penn Today spoke with members of this community about their views on Christopher Columbus, and the suffering of Indigenous people under colonialism.

Unlearning Columbus

Indigenous peoples populated the land now called the United States for more than 15,000 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, but most American schools teach that Columbus “discovered” America—despite the fact that he never set foot on its soil.

That dichotomy has never sat well with Connor Beard, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences, co-chair of Natives at Penn, and one of the 55,000 members of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. In elementary school in Warren, New Jersey, he was taught the “Columbus discovered America” version of American history, which he says conflicted with what he was taught at home. He recalls an exam in eighth grade in which he was asked a true or false question about whether Columbus discovered America.

According to his teacher, the answer was true, but Beard says he knew that responding true was not an accurate representation of historical events.

“It was difficult because I felt like I was in a weird position where I kind of had to agree with it in order to do well in that environment,” he says. “I think it’s a false idea that he discovered America because you can’t discover a place where there’s already people there.”

As he educated himself further about Columbus and the atrocities he committed against Indigenous people, Beard says he became even more horrified.

While serving as the governor of Hispaniola, present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Columbus punished people by cutting of their ears and noses, and paraded women naked through the streets and sold them into slavery.

Together with Columbus Day, a number of U.S. cities celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday in October, or have abolished Columbus Day altogether.

Beard says the Columbus Day holiday should be eliminated.

“I think on a basic level, if you are going to celebrate whoever came to America first, you might as well celebrate the Indigenous people who were here first,” he says.

Unworthy of praise

Brooke Parmalee, a second-year student at Penn Law School, graduate co-chair of Natives at Penn, and a member of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation in Connecticut, says the glorification of Christopher Columbus is disturbing, and the destructive effects of the colonial era he ushered in continue to harm Indigenous communities to this very day.

“It’s frustrating to put him as discovering America when he discovered land where Natives were here hundreds of years before he was,” she says. “And beyond that, he enslaved and devastated the Native population. Hundreds of thousands of Natives were enslaved and killed due to his discovery process.”

Her 300-member tribe, based on a 400-acre reservation in Kent, about 50 miles west of Hartford, is fighting the federal government for recognition and the state of Connecticut for the return of their land. They were first documented as an Indigenous community within the Connecticut Colony’s Housatonic Valley in the 1600s. During King Philip’s War—an armed conflict in southern New England from 1675-1676 that pitted Indigenous tribes against marauding English colonists trying to take their land—the area served as a refuge for Eastern Indigenous peoples fleeing the hostilities.

Parmalee, who grew up close to the reservation, says most of the members of her tribe were removed from their land under duress and forced to assimilate. Her great-great grandmother, a dark-skinned Indigenous woman, was told that she was too dark to live in the area of Kent and sent to Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“The land we originally had as ours was a lot bigger than what we have now,” she says. “The reservation we have left is a very small piece of the land we used to own.”

Parmalee was inspired to go to law school in order to acquire the skills, knowledge, and expertise to help her tribe fight for federal recognition, land, compensation, and justice, and other tribes as well.

She celebrates the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day.

“By honoring Christopher Columbus or glorifying this man, it’s the complete opposite of facts,” she says.

Trauma passed down through generations

In 1779, while he was fighting a war of independence to free the fledgling United States from British rule, George Washington, then commander in chief of the Continental Army, waged a concurrent war to subjugate and destroy the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in central New York. Also called the Iroquois or Six Nation Confederacy, the union consists of the Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations.

U.S. forces under Colonel Goose Van Schaick brutally attacked Onondaga towns in April of 1779, burning more than eight miles of Onondaga villages and crops, and killing men, women, and children.

Wharton sophomore Lauren McDonald, a South Florida native and member of Onondaga Nation, says assaults such as Van Schaick’s and numerous other colonial atrocities have caused “generational trauma” among Indigenous communities: psychological and emotional pain and anguish that is passed down from one generation to another, great-grandparents to grandparents, parents to children, children to grandchildren.

“I think with every new generation, [generational trauma] just gives them something else to work on, or work past, or work through,” she says, “a lot these things that other people in the community have been feeling. For example, for Columbus Day and all of these things that other people celebrate, I think for a lot of Indigenous people in the community, it’s something that affects their identity and affects who they are. It also brings a lot of negative attitudes towards them.”

McDonald does not acknowledge Columbus Day. She is leading a Natives at Penn initiative to have the University recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and is working with her Indigenous classmates to bring more visibility and resources to Indigenous students.

The silencing of Indigenous voices

Américo Mendoza-Mori, a lecturer in the Department of Hispanic and Portuguese Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences who teaches Quechua and Spanish, says the debate surrounding the veneration of Christopher Columbus and the rejection of him by Indigenous communities is about more than just statues, holidays, or Columbus himself, it’s about what he symbolizes—the elimination of Indigenous peoples from history and the national narrative, and the silencing of their voice and value.

“In the United States, we emphasize that we are a nation of immigrants, and of course, that’s a true fact, but unconsciously, even if we say it with good will, we are erasing from that vision all of the Native communities,” he says.

Mendoza-Mori, who also designed the Quechua Language Program, says current discussions about the place of Columbus in our society should focus more on drawing attention to the absence and exclusion of Indigenous viewpoints and voices, and highlight the presence, legacy, and importance of the Indigenous communities in the history of the Americas and in the present day.

He cites conversations about climate change as an example of where Indigenous voices are neglected. Indigenous communities, he says, have been active and engaged around the issue, and around 60 percent of the world’s most environmentally vulnerable locations are in Indigenous areas, but in most cases, their input is not sought when climate change and other global issues are being discussed.

“We learn about Indigeneity, or Indigenous culture or Native culture, as something from the past,” he says. “We never think necessarily about them as something from the present. And because we see them as something from the past, we don’t even think about the knowledge or the conversations they could bring to the table.”