Ten people after whom we could name our city, none of whom committed genocide
Today is Indigenous Peoples Day, or as most will mark it, Columbus Day. It’s the day on which it is hardest to ignore something that should always embarrass our city: We live in a town named after a man responsible for genocide.
Many Americans can sum up their knowledge of Christopher Columbus in that pernicious elementary school rhyme: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” So, here’s a refresher on our city’s namesake.
Christopher Columbus knew, like most educated people of his time, that the world was round, but he vastly underestimated its size. Through little more than luck, he careened into the Bahamas before the ocean could kill him. There he found the Arawak people.
The Arawak people offered Columbus hospitality: food, water, gifts. He wrote in his log, “They would make fine servants … with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we wanted.”
When Columbus saw the glint of gold on the tiny earrings that the Arawak wore, he made a decision that, in the end, would shape the history of our own city. He captured several of the Arawak and demanded that his prisoners tell him where more gold could be found. He abducted them to Hispaniola, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where he continued imprisoning indigenous people, and occasionally killing them. When the weather turned cold, Columbus’ prisoners began to die.
Columbus promised Spain gold, spices and slaves. He delivered on the last one. In 1495, during his second exposition, he kidnapped 1,500 Arawak people, including women and children, and put them in pens. He sent 500 of them back to Spain in chains, about half of whom died.
Back in Hispaniola, there was nowhere near enough gold to satisfy Columbus. Columbus ordered all the Arawak people over the age of 14 to collect gold. His men cut off the hands of those who did not find enough, leaving them to bleed death.
Historian Howard Zinn writes, “The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.”
All this added up to genocide. In two years, half of the 250,000 indigenous people on Haiti were dead. By 1650, Columbus wiped all the original Arawak and their descendants off of the island.
There are at least 20 U.S. cities named after Christopher Columbus. Of those, Ohio’s is the largest. Our city has another distinction: The state of Ohio has no federally recognized tribes within its borders.
Ohio is Erie, Kickapoo and Shawnee land, but all of these tribes were decimated by smallpox and other European illnesses before settlers even arrived in their communities. The Algonquian and Iroquoian tribes moved to Ohio when settlers drove them from their original homes. In the 1800s, the Indian Removal acts forced most Native nations in Ohio to leave for reservations in Oklahoma.
We are living on the land of indigenous people, in a city named after a man who was remarkable mostly for his greed and cruelty, whose so-called discovery of the New World began centuries of settler colonialism.
The name Columbus is shameful and sickening. Changing it is the least of what is owed to the people who still call this land their home. But the continued veneration of Christopher Columbus helps to perpetuate settler colonialism today. Like the statues of Confederate generals, it should be removed.
In this spirit, I offer 10 suggestions for people after whom we could name our city, none of whom committed genocide:
10. Frank Milano
Milano was a notorious Ohio crime boss who rose to power through a series of revenge murders. Even with his record of gristly violence, he’s still a less shameful namesake than Columbus.
9. R.L. Stine
The author of the best-selling Goosebumps books was born here. He scared the crap out of me as a kid, as Christopher Columbus should have.
8. Guy Fieri
Say what you want about the bleached blonde restauranteur, but he’s another local son and I’m pretty confident he hasn’t killed anyone.
7. Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison might not be from Columbus (she was born in Lorain), but I’m ready to claim Ohio’s greatest genius. No one knew more about the frightful power of memory and the horror of unacknowledged history than she. Morrison would understand the power of naming and renaming.
6. Jesse Owens
We could honor an Ohio State track star who made Hitler really nervous rather than a guy who gives ideas to fascists everywhere.
5. Scott Columbus
Scott Columbus was the late drummer for the heavy metal band Manowar. We wouldn’t even need to change the signs.
4. Jacqueline Woodson
She lived in Columbus only briefly, but this literary triple-threat author of award-winning picture books, poetry and novels wrote some of the most moving descriptions of our city ever penned. Bonus: I’d bet she doesn’t care for Christopher Columbus.
3. Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke is a tenacious advocate for indigenous rights and our collective survival on this planet. Living on the White Earth reservation, she is most famous as the first Native American woman to run for Vice President of the United States and her recent involvement in the campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Let’s turn our city’s name into an unpronounceable glyph, replace our Christopher Columbus statue with one of a guy who slayed on every instrument he touched, and become “The City Formerly Known as Columbus.”
1. The Shawnee tribe
One possible name stands out as the best for our city. It’s the name of the indigenous people from here, who still survive and have ties to this land, and who even the brutality of the settlers who followed Columbus could not exterminate. We could name our city after the Shawnee. Better, we could ask them what they want us to call their home. Better still, we could give them back their land.