Before there was the New World, there was the Pre-New World. These cultures within Pre-New World include western cultures and civilizations that survived and prospered before Christopher Columbus came upon the shores in 1492.
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. You may have heard this sweet rhyming song before. The sentence seems naive and innocent, but when you dig a little deeper, beneath these layers is not anything quite as rhyming, childish, and humanitarian as you may like to believe.
What is the real story behind the sailing of the Spanish ships and the arrival of these people who were with Christopher Columbus? What are we really celebrating when we are celebrating Christopher Columbus Day, which is on the second Monday in the month of October?
Columbus Day is a federal holiday, a manner of significance that shares the same honor as Martin Luther King Day and President’s Day, a celebration of our past presidents who did commendable things like Abraham Lincoln who worked to emancipate slaves. Why is Christopher Columbus on par with a minister who was an activist and spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement and a president who was bold and brave enough to speak out against the confines and irrationalities of slavery? As you begin to peel back the layers of what is at the heart of the celebration of Columbus Day, frankly, you may be rather surprised.
Christopher Columbus was an Italian, but he sailed for the Spanish. Spain was undergoing conflicts and wars which was leaving Spain feeling like they had a rather empty purse to continue their involvement. There was no jingle or jangle at the bottom of their wallet. They were looking for some way to get rich. To strike it big. To find some way to keep the money rolling in. The queen was willing to sell her most precious goods and jewelry to make it happen.
Right around this time, there was a rumor circulating that somewhere out there, there was a New World. People talked about it. They dreamed about. Spain salivated over it. They wanted it. Coveted it. Craved it. Spain imagined the New World would be the glimmering gem that would get them out of their hole. The New World would finally relieve them of their debt. They would have new land, new riches, and new places to explore and populate. But money was first and foremost on their mind. They wanted the cheddar.
So, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain funded the journey. They put a young man by the name of Christopher Columbus in charge, and so with Christopher Columbus (an Italian) at the helm of the three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, Columbus, and his crew sailed off for the New World with the Spanish flag waving in the Atlantic sea breezes.
Why Did We Ever Make It a Holiday in the First Place?
Three-hundred years later, after Columbus had his fateful landing (literally the boat coming onto the sandy shores) in 1492, in 1792, there was a celebration of the “achievement” in New York City.
On the 400th anniversary, the president at that time, President Benjamin Harrison issued an official proclamation urging Americans to celebrate the day. This proclamation led to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic-based fraternal organization with numerous Italian members (brothers, cousins, relatives, countrymen, descendants of Christopher Columbus himself), beginning to lobby for a state and federal holiday to be celebrated in honor of their Italian friend, Mr. Christopher Columbus.
The holiday of Columbus Day was officially observed at a federal level in 1937 through Franklin Roosevelt and the modern holiday was inaugurated with a presidential proclamation by Richard Nixon in 1972.
Though this holiday means that banks are closed and there is no mail, most business offices still remain open. And, as you can imagine, there is much controversy surrounding this holiday. Though Columbus crossed the Atlantic in an attempt to find land that eventually became America, there was a significant amount of this story that has often been swept under the rug. The truth of the matter is not taught in school. The truth of the matter is not discussed openly. The truth of the matter is that Columbus forced people into labor, killed dissenters, exploited the natives, and participated in genocide. In one of his first journal articles, Columbus takes note of the locals and the gold they were wearing. The source of the gold became his number one objective. He would acquire it at any cost. He wanted the gold and he would do anything he had to do to get it.
When he did not receive what he wanted, whether it was gold or food or women, Columbus and his army of men were known to use swords, crossbows, and cannons. If, or when, anyone disagreed, Columbus ordered their ears and their noses to be cut off. These people would then serve as a warning to others that they would receive similar treatment if they did not comply.
When the natives rebelled, Columbus used his troops that were heavily armed with their advanced weapons and quickly slaughtered the people. The indigenous people had not yet been introduced to advanced weapons and had at their disposal handmade tools and weapons like spears, rocks, and other culturally primitive tools. There were eyewitness accounts of native men who were still alive, but dying, being fed to hunting dogs. When Columbus could not acquire all the gold he wanted and promised to Spain he would find, he brought home natives, chained below the decks of his ships, to be sold when they arrived in Spain as slaves. The natives, those of whom were not enslaved, maimed, or cornered, tried to escape to the mountains. Columbus told his men that is was acceptable to hunt these men, to track them down as a sport and after they were found and killed, their bodies were used as dog food.
A system was put into place in which natives would be required to wear a piece of gold around their neck. If they came across any other gold, they were required to turn it in. When they did, they were rewarded, but if they did not have any gold to turn in, or did not have a gold coin around their neck, they were punished. A hand may have been chopped off and they were then required to wear their own hand around their neck.
As Columbus began exporting the cash and wealth of gold, this decreased the demand for the gold economy coming from the Gold Coast in Africa. This ultimately led to the rise of African slaves being traded instead, which inadvertently means that Columbus also is the father of the transatlantic slave trade.
Who was here first?
In 1492, the arrival of Columbus marks the beginning of recorded history in America, but there was already rich cultures and civilizations moving through their everyday life before Columbus even drifted ashore. Indigenous populations were living in the Americas long before the Italians or the Spanish explorers made their first tentative trips across the Atlantic. Indeed, on his very first day in the New World, Columbus took six natives as slaves. He wrote in another journal entry, “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.” He would go on to press thousands more into forced labor, killing anyone who disagreed. Even his own colonists did not like him. There were so many complaints filed that he was eventually called back to Spain in 1500.
What to celebrate then?
Celebrating this holiday is a way to continue this ignorance in recognizing those who have come before us. Who were here before us. Gratefully, there are those who have repurposed the holiday into being something less problematic and celebrating something which we find to be not only unfortunate, but sad, disheartening, and in violation of human rights. South Dakotans, for example, celebrate Native Americans Day instead. We commend this. What we should be celebrating is the cultural currency that was already here before Columbus arrived.
What is is exactly that we are celebrating? A ship found a new shore? Literally that the boat touched a white sandy beach? There are many ways in which these discoveries are still be uncovered today. Hawaii, for instance, may soon have a new island to add to their state. Off the coast of North Carolina, islands may be revealed from the ocean and the shifting currents, changing tides, and ways in which nature is constantly revealing herself to us. Was it some new aggregation of culture? Were Europeans looking for some new form of entertainment? Some new type of food? What was it they were looking for exactly?
Before Columbus arrived, there was art, music, science, medicine, philosophy, and religious principles at play. The Aztecs, Incans, and Mayans had all of the artistic nuances within their own cultures. The Europeans arriving only meant that now there was also their kind of art, music, science, philosophy, and religion...unfortunately with attributes and characteristics that were not rooted in the fact that all men were created equal. It would take time for America to come around to this idea, and unfortunately, there are those individuals in this country that still may have trouble with this form of thinking today.
Speaking Out Against Hate
America is a country that has more monuments to Columbus than any other nation in the world, but luckily, there are a growing number of communities that are speaking out against the atrocities associated with the federal holiday that Columbus Day is trying to mask and cover-up. Instead of focusing on the genocide, the greed for gold, the ways in which Europeans forced young girls into sex slavery, or the way people were supposed to carry Columbus’s men around on their backs, our hopes is that people will change their commitment and be committed to celebrating the cultures and communities that were here first.
People are ditching Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous People’s Day, which is meant to promote an accurate telling of the United States’ history and commemorate the resilience of its original inhabitants. This form of celebration is a meditation, a way of recognizing, holding space, and letting these descendants of these tribes and communities know that they are still respected, cherished, and held in high regard for their sacred art, culture, and history that the Europeans may have only have tarnished, but caused to come to a certain level of extinction. These tribes and communities are still resilient.
Indigenous People’s Day
The sentiment should be on Columbus Day, not a celebration of Columbus, but to recognize that the state was founded and built upon—literally upon—the Indigenous people of these regions.
Berkeley, California and South Dakota became the first city and state, respectively, to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in the 1990s.
The idea of celebrating Indigenous People’s Day was first proposed more than 40 years ago. A delegation of Native nations to a U.N. conference in Geneva passed a resolution. Thirteen years later, in 1990, the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance in Ecuador passed a resolution changing Columbus Day into a celebration of Native Americans.
Cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, Spokane, Boulder, Albuquerque, Portland, Oregon, St. Paul, and Olympia have heeded the calls of activists and honor indigenous communities and their history instead of Christopher Columbus.
Today, support for Columbus Day is waning. As more and more people recognize the horrors of Christopher Columbus’s actions, his plundering and pillaging, his unfortunate ways of leading at the cost of violence, hate, and slavery, they are choosing to celebrate something more authentic.
Who were the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incans?
Much of what is known today about the Inca comes from archaeologists. The mountaintop ruins of the Incan city of Machu Picchu were discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American explorer, but this city is located so high up in the Andes Mountains that the city (thankfully, gratefully) was hidden from the Spanish and left intact.
The Spanish took over all the Incan lands within 40 years, taking what they wanted of the gold, destroying the cities, and nearly erasing an entire civilization.
Present-day Mexico City covers the area where the Aztec capital once stood. Much of Aztec culture was destroyed, but some artifacts are now held in museums. Ruins of the Aztec capital have been uncovered from literally beneath the streets of modern Mexico City.
When Christopher Columbus and his crew encountered Mayan people in 1502, the Maya civilization had greatly declined. They had been in better conditions historically, but by the mid-1500s, Spanish cities were founded in the Mayan lands. Many Maya were killed or mistreated, but a few high-ranking members of the community retained some official control.
The Pre-New World Collection
We are offering the Pre-New World Collection as a tribute and to pay homage to western cultures and civilizations that survived and prospered in the Pre-Colombian era. Some motifs, like the Native American Peace Symbol, Native American Nickel, Personal Universe Sweatshirt designed to be like a labyrinth, Pre-Columbian American Jaguar, Gold Buffalo Coin, and Mayan Crocodile carry a strong influence of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations.
These pieces of clothing are more than just something to wear. It is our hopes that this collection will evoke a consciousness of the rich, vast, and ever-present contributions these cultures created and at which was at the heart of their communities. This collection is also a meditation on what the sacred and aware cultures of the Amerindian (or ‘Native American’) peoples have expressed through the art of symbols.
There is power to be had in learning more and uncovering the true meaning in some of these symbols, a connection back to the land, and an interconnectedness each of has to one another. When we begin to increase our awareness and educate ourselves on what these symbols mean, even when we put them on and wear them as clothing—when we literally cloak ourselves with these symbols—they offer us an ancestral power. This ancestral power offers is a form of protection as we continue to flow through the transitory human passage of living upon earth.