By Zoe V-K. ’24
On October 12, 1492, an Italian explorer named Christopher Columbus landed on what is now called San Salvador, an island in the Bahamas. Columbus’ voyages would become a symbol for bold discovery and a point of pride for many Italian-Americans. This “discovery” would also be a point of pride among Americans for whom it represents a key moment in the development of Western civilization and exploration. But to others, Christopher Columbus is a symbol for the systematic destruction of Indigenous People of the Americas. We at Winsor need to ask ourselves whether this history is worth celebrating.
It was in San Salvador that Columbus thought that he had arrived in South Asia. Because of his misinterpretation, Columbus coined the term “Indians” to describe the inhabitants of the island. San Salvador was the first stop of Christopher Columbus’ “great” voyage, but it wasn’t until December of 1492 that he left a greater mark on what he considered to be “The New World.”
In December of 1492, Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola, the home of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Although the numbers are widely disputed, there were at least a couple hundred-thousand people of the Taíno tribe already living on the island. With orders from the King and Queen of Spain, Columbus was to bring back gold and other natural resources from his voyage. However, after failing to find a large supply of precious metals, he instead captured and shipped hundreds of Taino people back to Spain to sell into slavery and repay his patrons. Columbus and his men also forced labor with brutal punishments, spread devastating diseases, and raped countless women and young girls. Hundreds of Taíno people were killed that year alone. In the next 60 years, the local Taino population would plummet due to their barbarous treatment by Columbus and his men.
Although Columbus never actually landed in what is now the United States of America, October 12 was recognized as Columbus Day in 1934 by President Roosevelt and was made a federal holiday in 1972 by President Nixon. In recent years, activists, Indigenous people, and others have called for this day to be renamed due to the cruelty of the man whom it honors. According to Wikipedia, in the past 30 years, 14 states have renamed the holiday, along with five cities in Massachusetts: Cambridge, Somerville, Northampton, Pittsfield, and Amherst. Many private schools in the Greater Boston area have also renamed the holiday on their school calendar.
There is some debate surrounding the naming of the October 12th holiday, most notably because many think that renaming would disregard the important history of Italians. Italian immigrants were heavily discriminated against in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and public officials and activists hoped that celebrating a notable piece of Italian history, Columbus, would integrate them into the American story. When Andrew Cuomo, Democratic Governor of New York and an Italian-American, was asked how he felt about removing statues of Christopher Columbus, he said that Columbus “has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York.” Changing the name of this holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day would not erase or devalue Italian history, but rather stop honoring a dark side of it.
Winsor is a school that strives for “equity and inclusion,” and in light of the a national uproar about racial injustice, there has been a focus on the calls from students and alums to achieve this goal. As Calla Walsh, Class VII and co-head of the Current Events Club says, “especially as an extremely wealthy and predominantly white institution, Winsor should not only educate us on the horrific past of our country, but also work towards dismantling the legacy of white supremacy and settler colonialism that is still so present today.” Calla is joined by Ava Hawkins (Class VII), whose “family lineage traces back to the Powhatan tribe, who had lived on what is now Virginia for thousands of years prior to Columbus’s arrival.” Because of the “destruction of culture, history, communities, and land that comes as a direct result of Columbus’ “discovery,” Ava hopes that the school “would recognize the foundations of our country’s establishment and choose to stand with, and defend the rights of our indigenous community.” Both think that one step to acknowledge this history is to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Calla and Ava are not alone in their hope for change, as the school itself states that we “seek Anti-racism and the disruption of all systemic oppression,” and have “openness to new ideas and rejection of stereotypical thinking.” These goals are laid out in the recently updated equity and inclusion plan of the school. If Winsor formally changed the name of the October 12 holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, it would reaffirm that the school wholeheartedly values the dignity of all people in a more equitable and inclusive Winsor.