Iowa City high schoolers petition to change Columbus Day to "Discovery Day"

BY EVAN HAFNER | APRIL 05, 2013 5:00 AM

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The traditional line goes, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” “discovering” the Americas. But as historians continue to study the life of Christopher Columbus, questions have surfaced surrounding the legitimacy of commemorating the explorer as a hero.

Hoping to make Columbus Day a more inclusive, universal celebration, Rachel Rinehart of the City High Student Senate has launched a campaign to change the holiday’s name to Discovery Day, in light of all of those who have contributed to the founding of America.

“Columbus was a bad person when you think about it rationally,” Rinehart said. “… He ended up in Spanish prison for enslaving and killing thousands of native islanders. I think a lot of people agree that Columbus Day should not be a holiday.”

The holiday has sparked a lot of controversy over the years, leading to protests against the celebration, debates over removing Columbus from classroom teaching, and petitions for name changes.

In fact, a group of students and faculty from the Meskwaki Settlement School in Tama, Iowa, visited the University of Iowa campus in October 2012 to protest Columbus Day. UI graduate students joined the protesters as they stood holding posters along Hubbard Park in order to mark Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day.

Rinehart says she believes it would be more beneficial to celebrate more than one individual.
“We are trying to get the idea of discovery to the public,” she said. “… Rather than celebrating one incredibly controversial individual, we want to celebrate all of the people that have helped to discover and found America.”

So Rinehart set out to make a difference. With Iowa being one of the few states that has not declared Columbus Day a holiday, the opportunity to instate Discovery Day as a permanent replacement relies on 1,000 citizen signatures.

Rinehart has 700 signatures of students and faculty members from City High, a number that is exceeding expectations.

“Once everything gets going, it should be easy to get the 1,000, but I want to prove to legislators how important this is to our community,” Rinehart said.

She has enlisted the help of numerous junior highs, Regina High, West High, and the University of Iowa Student Government, all of which have agreed to back her cause.

“Columbus was undoubtedly a great explorer,” said Nathan Shank, leader of the petition at Regina High School. “… But his actions were questionable. By changing Columbus Day to Discovery Day, it gives people the opportunity to celebrate explorers like Sacagawea, Neil Armstrong, and others rather than only one man.”

Shank said he and others plan to administer petitions to students in ninth- to12th-grade religion classes. They expect about 200 people to sign the petition.

Rinehart believes Discovery Day will better illustrate the achievements of the Age of Exploration and all of the people who helped to explore and discover America.

One UI faculty member supported the notion that holidays are important in the United States.

“Days of commemoration are a good thing,” said Michaela Hoenicke-Moore, a UI associate professor of history. “… A name change for Columbus Day could be a good starting point for what it means to be ‘an American’ and how this nation was founded.”

If all goes as planned, Rinehart said she hopes Discovery Day will be named a holiday in Iowa within the year. Following her campaign in Iowa, she would eventually take her petition to a national level.

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