Phi Alpha Theta, the honors society for history but open to all students, hosted a panel of professors Monday in the Advanced Technology and Science Hall auditorium to discuss the ongoing controversy surrounding Columbus Day and its possible change to Indigenous People’s Day.
The panel was comprised of four professors from Slippery Rock: Dr. Aksel Casson, Dr. Melissa Ford, Dr. Rachela Permenter and Dr. Frederick White. While these four panelists primarily led the discussion, conversation topics and talking points were taken directly from students and other attendees in the audience.
MaryAnn T. Steinmiller, a History major, Anthropology minor and Public Relations Officer for Phi Alpha Theta, described the process of conducting the event, particularly highlighting the panel and attendee interaction.
“We made sure the event ran smoothly,” Steinmiller said. “The panelist and the student involvement really made the event interesting. We set the stage for a conversation and took a step back so the students could take the lead and aim the conversation however they wanted.”
The central controversy surrounded Columbus’s legacy within American culture, and the many misconceptions the general public tends to believe in relation to his fame. One of them being that American children are often given an idealistic version of Columbus “sailing the ocean blue” only to be told much later in the curriculum about his numerous transgressions during his exploration.
“Columbus brought with him disease which decimated native populations, and he enslaved natives in the Caribbeans,” Steinmiller said. “This controversy also alludes to the fact that he did not ‘discover’ America, because these native tribes already lived on that land. He also never stepped foot in North America, he was only in the Caribbeans – which is another misconception.”
A prominent concern within the audience was one of cultural erasure on both sides of the controversy. One student raised the idea that, while the indigenous peoples harmed by the actions of Columbus were certainly owed some reparations, Columbus was a prominent historical footnote for the Italian American community.
The panel, however, argued that Italian Americans already had a great deal of representation throughout US history, and far less controversial ones at that. In their eyes, the erasure of hundreds of years of indigenous history due to the notion of the “discovery of the New World” was a far more pressing issue.
“The idea of truth and reconciliation is an undercurrent that would help a lot, “ Ford, a history professor said. “I think that’s what a lot of these groups are asking for.”
Divorced from a historical perspective, the panel questioned whether changing the name of the holiday would have any significant cultural impact at all. Most people, they said, barely care about Columbus day at all unless it means they get a day off from work or school.
Regardless, the discourse continues throughout the country, with some states such as Florida, Hawaii, and Alaska already switching to Indigenous People’s Day, and others remaining firm on the title of Columbus Day.
The true importance of the debate, Steinmiller posits, is in deciphering the ultimate truth underneath layers and layers of established myths.
“History isn’t perfect,” Steinmiller said. “We, as historians, are slowly trying to fix the inaccuracies of our past colleges; maybe one day we will have a ‘perfect history’. For now, I think events like this will slowly bring light to these lesser known, but by far not any less important, parts of history.”