Reno Retires Christopher Columbus

Earlier this month the Reno City Council adopted a resolution ending the city’s recognition of Columbus Day, opting instead to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. While the change reflects a growing awareness of the sensitive racial dynamics surrounding the fall holiday, the path to Reno’s action on this issue was undoubtedly stirred in part by a 2016 incident involving a car-versus-pedestrians crash that occurred in downtown Reno. Monday, October 14, 2019 marks the beginning of a new chapter in Reno.

Rethinking Columbus

Many schoolchildren learn of Christopher Columbus in grade school, often memorizing the opening lines of a poem entitled “1492”: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” [1] It is also common knowledge that the three ships that made up Columbus’s mission to find the “New World” were the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Columbus is a legendary figure, generally credited with having the courage – or knowledge, or faith – to sail beyond the western horizon in search of the “Indies” even though many believed the world flat. (Modern historians reject this out of hand: educated people have known the world is round for going on 3,000 years, and most evidence points to the idea that author Washington Irving, of Rip Van Winkle fame, invented out of whole cloth the idea of Columbus debunking the flat-earth myth. [2])

But even when he is reduced to a life-size figure, Columbus’s contribution is undeniable. His voyage led to the “discovery” of the continents we know today as North America and South America, and once the European powers began launching large-scale voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, the so-called Columbian Exchange began to unfold. (The “exchange” here was one of culture and resources but also of disease, flora, and fauna; the latter exchanges have continued to make profound, and mostly harmful impacts.)

The term “discovery” is in quotations above for two reasons. First, evidence indicates that Leif Erikson reached North America long before Columbus did, so arguably he should be credited with “discovering” the continent even if his voyages did not spark the same kind of mass migration as did Columbus’s. [3] Second, “discovery” is in the eye of the beholder. For the Native Americans who had built a web of complex, interconnected societies over thousands of years, there was nothing to “discover” at all. The very notion that the Americas were “new” or “undiscovered” places the European experience at the center of our discourse; as both a linguistic and a social matter, this tends to erase the importance and even the very existence of the Native Americans. Some legal scholars strongly critique the “Doctrine of Discovery” that was used to justify the legality of seizing indigenous peoples’ land in the Americas and beyond. [4]

That is not all Columbus has going against him. The arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a boon for them but a bane for the Native Americans. From Canada in the north to Chile in the south, Columbus’s arrival began a century of conquest that decimated the Native American peoples and deprived them of their lands and way of life. Thus many modern scholars find little to celebrate in the arrival of Columbus and his European compatriots. Additionally, evidence abounds that Columbus himself thought of – and treated – the native peoples he encountered in ways that are repugnant to modern values. [5]

In light of Columbus’s – let’s say “complicated” – history, many have begun to sour on the idea of celebrating Columbus Day. Indeed, opposition to Columbus Day has taken many forms over the years:

  • Columbus’s arrival was not generally celebrated at all until its 300th anniversary
  • Nativist political forces in the 1800s sought to abolish Columbus Day because of Columbus’s Italian heritage; the anti-immigrant sentiment of the day was hostile toward Catholics and migrants from southern Europe
  • Columbus Day did not become a national holiday until 1934
  • In the 1990s, a wave of U.S. cities began to reject Columbus Day
  • Columbus Day celebrations are waning, and celebrations of Indigenous Peoples Day (often as a replacement for Columbus Day) are on the rise [6]

The Vehicle Crash in Reno

In 2016 demonstrators affiliated with the American Indian Movement of Northern Nevada staged a peaceful protest in downtown Reno. They blocked traffic beneath the iconic Reno arch on Virginia Street, demonstrating to draw attention to the issues discussed above and to pressure local leaders to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. [7] A man in a pickup truck approached the demonstrators with his vehicle, stopped for a time, and then drove through the group, injuring some of the participants. Later reporting indicates that the man had several confrontations with the demonstrators earlier in the day and that his final affray with them resulted in some amount of punching. The man – as well as two demonstrators – faced criminal charges but did not receive any jail time. [8] While the racial and social undertones of this incident are unsettling, on the spectrum of Reno vehicle-pedestrian collisions it was certainly among the milder ones.

An automobile is larger, faster, and heavier than any person, and the results of a car crash involving a pedestrian can be devastating. Each year in Nevada nearly 100 pedestrians are killed in car accidents, and just last month Reno saw its most recent fatal pedestrian crash. [9] If you or a loved one have been hurt in a vehicle accident, contact an experienced personal injury attorney for guidance.

[1] http://www.teachingheart.net/columbus.htm

[2] https://www.history.com/news/christopher-columbus-never-set-out-to-prove-the-earth-was-round

[3] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/10/151011-columbus-day-leif-erikson-italian-americans-holiday-history

[4] https://udayton.edu/directory/law/documents/watson/watson_2011_seattle_american_doctrine_of_discovery_on_native_land_rights.pdf

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbus_Day#Opposition_to_Columbus_celebrations

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbus_Day#Opposition_to_Columbus_celebrations

[7] https://www.kolotv.com/content/news/Five-people-treated-after-confrontation-at-Reno-Columbus-Day-protest-396598691.html

[8] https://mynews4.com/news/local/driver-accused-of-hitting-reno-columbus-day-protesters-changes-plea-gets-no-jail-time

[9] https://www.kolotv.com/content/news/NHP-investigating-deadly-hit-and-run-559814071.html

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