How Africa Stopped a Global Observance of Columbus Day
For centuries, the story of how Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas in 1492 has been studied across the world. To commemorate his landing, Columbus Day has been unofficially celebrated in the United States since the 18th century, as reported by History.com.
The holiday, now widely known as Indigenous People’s Day, has been controversial for some time. Particularly because of the atrocities committed against Native Americans in the U.S. and across Latin America and the Caribbean by colonizers.
According to the White House’s 2022 proclamation on the holiday, the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day honors “the sovereignty, resilience, and immense contributions that Native Americans have made to the world.”
Now, the U.S. isn’t the only country changing Columbus Day’s name. Across many Latin American nations, the name for the anniversary of Columbus’ landing has changed. Many now refer to it “Día de la Raza.” Venezuela changed it to “Día de la Resistencia Indígena” in 2002.
However, although the celebration is mostly recognized in the U.S. and Latin America, it was almost celebrated worldwide. Turns out that in 1982 the Spanish government teamed up with the Vatican. Their mission? Proposing to the United Nations the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the “encounter.” Here are all the details.
Spain, the Vatican and the”Doctrine of Discovery”
In “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz gives a thorough history of how International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, celebrated on August 9, came to be.
Turns out that in 1982, Spain and the Vatican took to the UN for a special request: celebrating the “encounter” between the people of the Americas and Europeans. Particularly “Europeans bearing the gifts of civilization and Christianity to the Indigenous peoples.”
These ideals were cemented in the mid-fifteenth century with the “Doctrine of Discovery.“ The document issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 as part of a papal bull, supported Spain’s exclusivity to the lands discovered by Columbus in 1492. The document expressed that land that was not inhabited by Christians was available for “discovery” by Christian rulers.
While the Spanish and the Vatican pushed the UN General Assembly to accept their proposition, it backfired on them, with one move from the African delegation no one expected.
Despite North Atlantic States like the U.S. and Canada supporting the bill, the African delegation condemned the resolution
Although the proposal to celebrate the quincentennial didn’t pass, some Latin and North American countries supported the resolution. El Salvador, Cuba, Nicaragua, Grenada, the U.S. and Canada took Spain’s side, the New York Times archive reports.
Scandinavian countries, on the other hand, were strictly against it. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland stated honoring Leif Ericsson instead since he established settlements in North America 500 years before Columbus. Additionally, they stated the draft resolution commemorated colonization.
After much debacle, it was the African delegation that took everyone by surprise.
As Dunbar-Ortiz writes, the entire African delegation walked out and came back with a statement that condemned the celebration. With the New York Times reporting a UN official decreed the resolution ”reawakened latent antagonisms of colonialism and racism.”
Indigenous people proposed to the UN that 1992 be proclaimed “year of mourning”
Before Spain and the Vatican took to the UN General Assembly with their resolution, Indigenous people from across the Americas requested proclaiming 1992 a “year of mourning.”
As documented in Dunbar-Ortiz’s book, during the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas conference at the UN Geneva headquarters in 1977, the motion denounced the “onset of colonialism, African slavery, and genocide against the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.”
Furthermore, they added making October 12 the UN International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Although the petition did not go through, the UN compromised. They declared August 9 the official holiday and inaugurated the Decade for the World’s Indigenous Peoples, officially beginning in 1994.
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