On Friday, September 4, the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Health and Human Relations heard comments from the public regarding a proposal to recognize the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
As home to one of the strongest collections in the world on American Indian and Indigenous Studies as well as the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies, the Newberry was invited to submit a letter in response to the proposal. Analú López, Ayer Indigenous Studies Librarian at the Newberry, submitted the following statement on behalf of the library.
Dear Alderman Roderick T. Sawyer,
Hello, my name is Analú María López and I am the Ayer Indigenous Studies Librarian at the Newberry Library. I am here today to represent the library, its D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies, and Center for Renaissance Studies. I’d like to read a statement about the history of Christopher Columbus, the legacy of settler colonialism in the United States, and the continued impact of celebrating Columbus Day.
The myth of Columbus Day portrays Christopher Columbus as a heroic and peaceful explorer, but historical sources, including Columbus’s own letters and journals, tell a different story. In them, we see Columbus immediately resolve to exploit the new lands he reached and their people. They clearly show him relentlessly searching for gold, establishing military footholds throughout the islands, and killing and enslaving Indigenous people. Crucially, they also show Columbus describing Indigenous people as “good servants” with “no religion,” dehumanizing language that invited the Spanish to follow his model of ruthless exploitation with a clear conscience, which they did beginning with his second voyage.
While it may be tempting to think that Columbus’s actions were acceptable in the 15th century, even as many of us acknowledge them as wrong today, in fact, they were highly debated and many criticized his greed and violence.
The history of Columbus and the violent birth of settler colonialism in the United States that followed his voyages should be taught as a part of U.S. history in all its complexity, but a holiday honoring his legacy does not enable discussions of encounters between Europeans and Native people. That history must be better understood in order to promote equity and cross-cultural understanding. We encourage those who are concerned about the erasure of history to reflect on the information that Columbus Day obscures. In addition to erasing a history of enslavement, rape, mutilation, and murder, existing narratives that accompany Columbus Day typically marginalize Indigenous people, or fail to mention them entirely and rarely depict settler-colonial violence.
Despite the atrocities committed by colonizers, Indigenous communities are still here and thriving. In order for us to have an equitable future for all Chicagoans, we must center Native voices and reevaluate how we view, talk, teach, and think about the history of Columbus Day. The Newberry Library is committed to enabling and advancing conversations about the troubling legacies of settler colonialism and slavery. We welcome those who are interested in learning more to explore Columbus’s letters for themselves, which are available at the Newberry.
We want to thank the Chi-Nations Youth Council, the American Indian, Afro-Indigenous, and Indigenous people in Chicago for advocating on this issue. In the spirit of community-engaged civic investment, we urge you to let them lead the way as we discuss the future of the second Monday in October.
Analú María López, Ayer Indigenous Studies Librarian
Joined in this statement by:
Daniel Greene, President and Librarian
Christopher D. Fletcher, Assistant Director, Center for Renaissance Studies
Rose Miron, Director, The D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies