Christopher Columbus: A Controversy 500 Years Later

October 13, 2016

October 13th is nationally recognized as Columbus day, marking the day Christopher Columbus discovered the new world in 1492. This encounter, as students learn as early as elementary school, changed the course of American and Latin American history. This year, many cities across the US have protested this holiday demanding that instead of lauding Columbus, we use this day to recognize the indigenous people whose land Columbus allegedly invaded. Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Minneapolis all protested Columbus day festivals which market themselves as Italian-American Heritage festivals, claiming that such festivals and parades encourage the genocide of indigenous people in North, Central, and South America.1

Cities in the US want to use this day to commemorate Native American tribes, like the Sioux and Chippewa tribes, which have either been completely destroyed or moved out of their ancestral land onto reservations. While indigenous relations in the US is not widely discussed, in South America indigenous relations are still at the forefront of national policy. During colonization millions of indigenous people in Latin America were killed, by force or by foreign diseases, or sold into slavery. Even though this happened hundreds of years ago, there are still genocides of indigenous people occurring across Latin America in various forms.

Survival International, an international non-profit that fights for the rights of indigenous people around the world, used Columbus day to inform people about the recent genocides against indigenous people in Latin America. Survival International mentions some smaller scale genocides in Latin America . While large scale genocides around the world often are recognized, lesser events receive little to no coverage, though they are equally damaging and devastating. In the 1950s and 60s, many of the Aché tribe of Paraguay were killed in raids and sold into slavery by people attempting to colonize their land. In 2014, the Aché people launched a landmark case against the genocide that had not been recognized for 50 years. In Brazil two incidents, in 1985 and 1993, marked another genocide against indigenous tribes who were being killed by illegal loggers and miners. This issue continues today and is affecting the recently contacted Ka’apor tribe and the Awá tribe who are being forced out their land and killed.2

The legacy of Columbus’s colonization still affects the indigenous people of Latin America in smaller scale genocides. Although there is an International Day of the World's Indigenous People created by the UN that is celebrated on August 9th, recent protests in the US against Columbus day mark a day of recognitin for indigenous recognition and rights. While this is a step forward, there is still much work to be done, as Survival International director Stephen Corry noted, “Industrialized societies subject tribal peoples to genocidal violence, slavery and racism so they can steal their lands, resources and labor in the name of ‘progress,’ and ‘civilization.’ Since the dawn of the Age of ‘Discovery,’ tribal peoples have been the innocent victims of an aggressive colonization of their land. By portraying them as backward and primitive, invaders have justified a systematic and cruel annihilation, which continues to this day. It’s time the genocide stopped.”


1) "Columbus Day: Genocide of America's Tribes Continues." Survival International. N.p., 11 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2014. <http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10485>.

2) Grinberg, Emanuella. "Instead of Columbus Day, Some U.S. Cities Celebrate Indigenous People's Day." CNN. Cable News Network, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/12/living/columbus-day-indigenous-people-day/>.

About Author(s)

Sophia Winston
Sophia Winston is a Spanish and Urban Studies major at the University of Pittsburgh, she is also pursuing a certificate in Latin American Studies and a minor in Portuguese. She has spent a semester abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and is currently a senior.