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Why Utah Shouldn't Turn Columbus Day Into Indigenous People's Day

Jim Dabakis is either a bad troll, or a naive student of history who likes to romanticize.

The Utah state senator, a Democrat, says he'll introduce a bill renaming Columbus Day to “Indigenous People’s Day” as a way to honor the people who lived in America before the evil explorers and subjugators.

“It’s kind of an old, haggering idea that Christopher Columbus did something,” Dabakis told Salt Lake City's KSTU, a Fox affiliate. “He was the first white guy to arrive, he didn’t know where he was going, he ended up in a place he thought he wasn’t. He really has contributed nothing to civilization.”

It's true, Columbus didn't know where he was going. Unaware that there was an entire continent blocking his path, the explorer was trying to find a way around the globe to reach Asia. Despite making four trips to and from the Americas, Columbus wouldn't admit he'd found an entirely new continent, and insisted he'd landed in India. (Thus, the Indians.)

One of the first things Columbus noted on meeting the Native Americans was how easily he could subjugate them with only a handful of men. Awful tales abound of the way Columbus and his men treated indigenous people not only on the mainland, but also islands like Hispaniola and Barbados. While scholars disagree on the veracity of some of the claims, Columbus and his men were accused of taking native women by force and raping them, or using them as currency, testing their sword blades by killing natives, murdering babies, and sending the bodies of their victims to butchers for use as dog food, says the Huffington Post.

More atrocities were reported during Columbus' tenure as governor of Hispaniola, until the Spanish monarchs Isabelle and Ferdinand removed him from power.

Columbus was a cruel man who committed inexcusable atrocities, and the fact that he was a product of his time doesn't excuse that behavior. Columbus may have rationalized his cruelty by saying he was spreading Christianity, but the bible is pretty clear on things like murder and rape.

However, it's also a mistake to romanticize the native Americans. The first tribes that greeted Columbus and his men were remarkably welcoming and peaceful, even when the explorers gave them reasons to doubt their intentions, Scientific American notes. They suffered horribly, particularly from diseases they'd never been exposed to, which were carried by the explorers.

But the idea that native American tribes were all peaceful, innocent parties is also naive. Talk to some people, and you get the sense that they think pre-European America was as blissful as life on Avatar's Pandora -- people living as one with nature, honoring the spirits of the animals they had to butcher (by necessity!), enjoying a simpler, superior and peaceful way of life until the evil Europeans introduced them to the concept of war.

Of course, that isn't true, either. Native groups such as the Sioux and Cheyenne were unflinchingly brutal in inter-tribal wars. This is where the term scalping comes from: Warriors in those tribes thought nothing of scalping women and children, and the warriors used the body parts of their enemies as war trophies. Similarly, Comanche Indians were said to be expert torturers who murdered babies and boiled their enemies alive. Settlers captured by the Comanche and similar tribes would end up dead or worse, tortured and disfigured beyond recognition, as the Daily Mail notes.

Hopefully, the state senate in Utah will have more important things to worry about than renaming a holiday most people these days associate with a day off and retail sales. If Dabakis and his supporters want to take some of the sheen off Columbus, perhaps their energies would be put to better use lobbying for less-sanitized textbooks in classrooms, so American students see him less as a fairy tale, and more as the brutal man he really was.

Source: KSTU Fox Salt Lake City, Daily Mail, Huffington PostScientific American / Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

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