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The district plans to reframe discussions of European exploration, highlighting the problems they caused for native tribes.

ASHBURN-Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. Beyond that, there’s no evidence he actually set foot here at all. So why do we celebrate him with a holiday? The Loudoun County School Board wrestled with that question this week, eventually deciding to eliminate Columbus Day from the calendar. In its place, the school district will now celebrate Native American tribes on the second Monday of October. 

Board member Harris Mahedavi intended Indigenous Peoples Day to pay tribute to the original inhabitants of the Americas. Classes already learn that Columbus landed in the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti and Hispaniola rather than in the US. Changing the holiday to honor the tribes who were here before Europeans arrived just made sense, Mahedavi said. 

“It’s well known and understood that Columbus did not discover America,” Mahedavi said. “As an educative institution, we cannot go on with the narrative of our history. Our history books are filled with this inaccuracy. We need to relearn our history.”
America was already a proud nation before Columbus sailed, Mahedavi said, one with multiple indigenous cultures and civilizations. Instead, the board member said we need to recognize the issues Columbus caused. When Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, he and his crew encountered the Taino people. 

“They do not carry arms or know them,” Columbus wrote in his diary, according to an Oct. 2011 Smithsonian article. “They should be good servants.” 

He took multiple members of the tribe back to Spain to become just that. In fact, members of the school board argued, you could say he started the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, as other explorers followed in his footsteps. 

Some Members Didn’t Want to Criticize

While the proposal eventually passed, some board members didn’t like the criticism of Columbus. The main issue came from a portion of the proclamation that said “Columbus’ voyage to the Americas opened the door to the destruction of the Indigenous Peoples’ communities.” Instead of attacking Columbus, school board member John Beatty argued they should focus on the accomplishments of the indigenous tribes. 

“I have a problem with the criticalness of it,” Beatty told the board. “It denigrates other people. I think it’s important when you’re recognizing people that you don’t denigrate other people in the same way. I think that’s how we grow as a society.” 

Instead, he proposed a replacement version. Beatty’s proposal praised tribal accomplishments, but added another section. It stated “Europeans were connected to the rich cultures of indigenous people through Columbus’s expedition.” 

John Morse supported Beatty’s proposal, arguing there was no need to criticize. 

“I think in today’s society, where we tend to take a position of one side and against another side, I think we just further drive the wedge between different members of our community,” Morse said. “I think it’s clear we have a very European-centric view of Columbus Day and I think our schools are doing a very good job of clarifying that.” 

The two men were the only ones who supported the replacement, which failed. The conversation about Columbus may be a hard one to have, their fellow board members said, but it’s needed. 

“It did open the door to the destruction of communities of people who were already here,” said board member Beth Barts. “Columbus did destroy that. That’s not something we can avoid talking about. It may make some people uncomfortable to have that included, but it’s true.”