The problem with mythology is that sometimes it’s racist, gets written into books and memorized by school children. Explorer Christopher Columbus, for instance, did not “discover” America. Rather, under the flag of Spain, his incorrect calculations sailed him to the Caribbean. Additionally, while traditionally celebrated as a famous Italian every year, Columbus lived at a time when “there was no such thing as an Italian; Italy did not exist until 1861,” the Washington Post reports.
But perhaps the most important myth about Christopher Columbus is that he committed genocide. That was the profound accusation on Columbus Day 1989, when the late Native American activist Russell Means poured torrents of fake blood over the Columbus statue in downtown Denver as Italian Americans held their annual parade in the streets. The shock of Means’ charges of mass murder resulted in several cities cancelling their parades and several cities and states instead honor “Indigenous People’s Day” or “Native American Day.”
In fact, Columbus was a cruel slave trader—by 1500, nearly 1,500 enslaved islanders had been sent to Europe for sale and “even ‘friendly’ indigenous peoples were forced to mine gold en masse, speeding death from malnourishment, overwork and disease,” writes colonialism scholar Kris Lane in the Washington Post.
“Columbus wanted living and multiplying subjects to tax and govern. He was not interested in depopulating newly acquired territories,” Lane writes. “Was Columbus an active protector of Native Americans? No. Did he wish to eliminate them? No. Did genocide directly result from his decrees and his family’s commercial aims? Yes.”
And with such knowledge must come action and accountability. Just as Southern elected officials had to determine what they would do with their symbols of the slave-defending Confederacy, so officials in Los Angeles decided to deal with the bronze statue of Columbus in Grand Park in downtown LA—that children might pass and inappropriately admire.
Both LA County and LA City decided to remove the statue, a symbol of oppression that has been at that site for 45 years. On Saturday, Nov. 10, to the applause of a small crowd of about 100 people, the statute was ceremoniously taken down. The LA City/County Native American Indian Commission will recommend its replacement.
“This is a natural next step in the progression to eliminate the false narrative that Christopher Columbus discovered America,” said out LA City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, a member of the Wyandotte Nation. “Columbus himself was personally responsible for committing atrocities and his actions set in motion the greatest genocide in recorded history. His image should not be celebrated anywhere.”
“The statue of Christopher Columbus rewrites a stained chapter of history that romanticizes expansions of European empires and exploitations of natural resources and of human beings,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who authored the motion to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
“We have all inherited this complex, difficult history,” Solis continued. “Minimizing — or worse, ignoring — the pain of Los Angeles’ original inhabitants is a disservice to the truth. The removal of the Columbus statue in Grand Park is an act of restorative justice that honors and embraces the resilient spirit of our County’s original inhabitants. With its removal, we begin a new chapter of our history where we learn from past mistakes so we are no longer doomed to repeat them.”