Trump's praise of Columbus omits dark history

Christopher Columbus pictured landing in America.

Story highlights

  • Some cities are celebrating Indigenous People's Day rather than Columbus Day
  • Obama's last Columbus Day statement acknowledged suffering by natives; Trump's doesn't

(CNN)Never mind the disease and slavery wrought by Christopher Columbus' voyage -- or the fact that he didn't actually "discover" the New World.

President Donald Trump's first presidential proclamation of Columbus Day gave only high praise to the 15th century explorer, a stark contrast to the proclamation made by President Barack Obama one year earlier.
"The permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation," Trump said in his proclamation.
    A 76-foot statue of Christopher Columbus stands in New York's Columbus Circle.
    "Therefore, on Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions -- even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity," Trump said.
    Obama has also hailed Columbus' ambition and perseverance, saying his "legacy is embodied in the spirit of our Nation." But he also acknowledged the uglier side of Columbus' voyages.
    "As we mark this rich history, we must also acknowledge the pain and suffering reflected in the stories of Native Americans who had long resided on this land prior to the arrival of European newcomers," which included "violence, deprivation, and disease," Obama wrote last year.
    "As we reflect on the adventurers throughout history who charted new courses and sought new heights, let us remember the communities who suffered, and let us pay tribute to our heritage and embrace the multiculturalism that defines the American experience."
    In recent years, some cities have either dumped Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous People's Day, or have marked both occasions on the second Monday of October.

    So what did Columbus really do?

    He wasn't the first to discover the New World, the term generally used to refer to the modern-day Americas. Indigenous people had been living there for centuries by the time Columbus arrived in 1492.
    And he wasn't the first European in the New World, either. Leif Eriksson and the Vikings beat him to it five centuries earlier. But Columbus did pave the way for the "European exploration, exploitation, and colonization of the Americas," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
    While many schoolchildren learn about the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, less appealing details of Columbus' journeys include the enslavement of Native Americans and the spread of deadly diseases.
    The indigenous societies of the Americas "were decimated by exposure to Old World diseases, crumbling under the weight of epidemic," historian David M. Perry wrote.
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    "Columbus didn't know that his voyage would spread diseases across the continents, of course, but disease wasn't the only problem. ... He also took slaves for display back home and to work in his conquered lands."
    But there's no doubt that Columbus' voyages "had an undeniable historical impact, sparking the great age of Atlantic exploration, trade and eventually colonization by Europeans," Perry wrote.
    In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison started the celebration of Columbus Day to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing in the Bahamas.
    "In a very real way, this era reshaped the world, the languages we speak, the religions we follow, the foods we eat and the diseases we catch," Perry wrote. "I don't know if that's a reason to have a school holiday, exactly, but it's definitely worth remembering."

    Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day

    Many school districts and local governments will mark Columbus Day the same way they have for decades, with no classes and no work in honor of the man widely believed to have "discovered" America.
    But some cities and states are shifting that honor from Columbus to indigenous people.
    At least 16 states, including Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon, don't recognize Columbus Day as a public holiday.
    Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis and Austin, Texas, have chosen to celebrate Indigenous People's Day on the second Monday in October. In Portland, Oregon, school board officials chose to supplement Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day.
    Los Angeles Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, a member of the Wyandotte Native American tribe, said historical accuracy is important.
    "Christopher Columbus' legacy of extreme violence, enslavement, and brutality is not in dispute," O'Farrell said, according to CNN affiliate KCAL. "Nor is the suffering, destruction of cultures and subjugation of Los Angeles' original indigenous people, who were here thousands of years before anyone else."