“Settler colonialism is a structure, not an event.” Among much else, these words mean that, whether they’re called Columbus Day, Independence Day, or Tuesday, every day in America is a Columbus Day – every day marks the continuation of the ongoing dispossession of Native nations. Despite that Native life and land return matter every single day, every year even many persons or organizations that usually ignore or even seek to undermine struggles for Native liberation will spend part of one day excoriating Christopher Columbus and his legacy of death.
Telling the truth about Columbus – destroying colonial mythologies – is an important and useful thing. But a praxis which confines itself to only an occasional “truth-telling” about historical injustices not only fails as an act of solidarity, but is largely beside the point. Settlers know that the land under their feet is stolen land. We do not need to credit the bad faith professions of ignorance from Europeans who grew up chanting “in fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Even after this “truth-telling” takes place, the vast majority, including those who confess that they really do feel quite awful about it all, still do nothing: they know the land under their feet is stolen land, yes, and they intend to keep it that way. The claim that “I did not know” is better understood when heard as “I did not care” – or, “I do not care.”
Most settlers who might celebrate moves toward the abolition of Columbus Day – including its replacement with an Indigenous Peoples Day – would also strenuously oppose decolonization, the destruction of the settler polity and the restoration of land to Native sovereignty and lifeways, as undesirable, impracticable, or even unjust. They can admit the need to do away with a particularly noxious ideological prop of Native oppression, but they cannot oppose the material and structural conditions that give rise to celebrations of colonialism. As the Shawnee and Lenape legal historian Steven Newcomb has put it,
Before we move further in the direction of “Indigenous Peoples Day,” however, perhaps it would be wise to remember Dakota poet and philosopher John Trudell’s warning about what happens when, “They change the name and treat us the same.” The existing foundation of the system continues unabated because the name change is only a surface level revision.
Settlers also know what just reparations for theft are – the return of what was taken. They insist as much in their property disputes with each other. The settler’s oscillation between apathy and hostility toward Native life is not grounded in their ignorance, but in their material and affective investments as colonizers, the manner in which even the most minute and intimate aspects of their existence are grounded in the settler colonial project. Colonizers can afford to jettison some of their myths. They can even take down some of their noxious monuments, just so long as they keep the land and all they have built upon it. They might even view this adoption of a conservative multiculturalism as ultimately advantageous insofar as this “truth-telling” promotes another set of potentially pacifying myths signalling a fictitious shift towards a post-colonial dispensation, that the settler’s honesty represents an advance toward a more democratic and inclusive society. Criticism of holidays such as Thanksgiving and Columbus Day allows the oppressor who becomes a smidgen conversant in the language of the oppressed to normalize or render invisible their own active role in colonization, justifying their parasitic occupation of Indigenous land in the names of allyship and solidarity. In their essential “Uprooting Colonialism: The Limitations of Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” the Indigenous Action Media Collective write
Aside from psychic solace, if the state dismantles these statues and proclaims Indigenous Peoples’ Days, what do we actually achieve if the structures and systems rooted in colonial violence remain intact? Is it merely political posturing or window dressing to diminish liberatory agitations? Our senses are heightened as most re-brandings of Columbus Day into IPD appear to whitewash ongoing colonial legacies…
We’re all for removing colonial symbols and nationalistic myths, so long as structures such as colonialism and racism go along with them. Problem is they are not. These edicts are readily embraced by their advocates as “steps in the right direction” for Indigenous interests, yet – as we’ll assert here – only serve to calcify colonial rule. What else are we to glean from superficial declarations handed down by occupying governing bodies?
The settler state might pass a resolution to change the name of a day. Or it might, as the Biden administration did this year, proclaim an Indigenous Peoples’ Day while in the same breath celebrating Columbus and his settler colonial legacies. But it will not legislate justice; its existence is, at the root, the negation of justice. But as noisily as settler factions such as the Knights of Columbus will resist this comparatively minor adjustment, the entire body would ever more viciously defend the substance of their ongoing theft. The only way to end every Columbus Day is to, as Tecumseh and Fanon together recognized, foreclose the very possibility of settler futurity: to “give no rest to a white man’s bones,” to condemn the settler colony to expulsion or the depths of the earth.