Criticism of Columbus Day is nearly as old as the holiday itself (early objections were linked to anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiments), but in the last few decades the criticism has finally entered the mainstream. Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of land that was already inhabited led directly to the enslavement and death of hundreds of indigenous Arawak people, and indirectly to the enslavement and death of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people all over the continent.
No matter what you like about Columbus Day, we’ve got a replacement hero for you to toast to instead.
1. If You Already Prefer to Celebrate Indigenous People’s Day: Buffalo Calf Road
Right on! You’ve probably got a lot of heroes for this weekend already, but allow us to suggest one more. While American history books prefer to stick to one or two well-known Native American war heroes – Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Rain-in-the-Face – their fierce female counterparts are much less well-known. If you want to celebrate some badass Native American women warriors, Buffalo Calf Road is a great one to pick.
Buffalo Calf Road was a Cheyenne woman who fought in multiple battles against both white settlers and rival tribes, but two in particular would secure her place in history. One was a battle commonly referred to as Battle of the Rosebud in 1876; upon seeing her brother, Chief Comes in Sight, fall as his horse was shot from underneath him, Buffalo Calf Road charged right into the middle of the fray to save him. Her bravery led the Cheyenne to name that battle as “The Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.” But Buffalo Calf Road has another, albeit more contested, claim to fame: firing the arrow that knocked Custer himself right off his damn horse at the end of the Battle of Greasy Grass, otherwise known as Custer’s Last Stand. Doesn’t get much more historic than that.
2. If You’re Really Set on Celebrating an Explorer: Matthew Henson
Not all explorers are gross genocidal liars. Matthew Henson was the first Black explorer of the Arctic, and he was a total badass. Born in 1866 to parents who were sharecroppers in Maryland, Henson first started exploring at just 12 years old, when he took a job as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, and over several years of world travel with the ship’s captain, who took Henson on as a mentee, became a highly skilled navigator.
Years later, while working at a clothing store in Washington, DC, Henson happened to cross paths with Robert E. Peary, famed admiral and explorer. Impressed with Henson’s navigational skills, Peary invited him to join him on a trip to Nicaragua, and the rest was history: Henson traveled with Peary for more than 20 years, including on Peary’s historic trips to the Arctic. Henson learned to speak the Inuit language and picked up many of their customs, teaching his fellow explorers how to build igloos out of snow and becoming one of the only non-Inuits who mastered their techniques for dog sledding and training. By many reports, it was Henson who planted the American flag when his team became the first men to reach the North Pole in 1906.
While Peary went on to become a world-renowned explorer, Henson was largely written out of popular accounts and history books; eventually, he was awarded the Peary Polar Expedition Medal – in 1944, almost four full decades after making the trip with the man for whom the medal is named.
3. If You’re Trying to Honor Your Italian Heritage: Irma Marchiani
“But my Italian heritage!” is a common rebuttal to anti-Columbus Day arguments. Well, rebut no more.
It’s hard to find a lot of information about Irma Marchiani if you’re not fluent in Italian, but it’d almost be worth learning it just to read about her. Marchiani was a female fighter in the Italian Resistance, the bands of Italians fighting against both occupying German forces and the Italian Fascist puppet regime during the later years of World War II. The granddaughter of a decorated soldier who had served under Garibaldi (referred to as one of the “Fathers of Italy”), Marchiani served as the political commissar for one of the “Garibaldi Brigades” named in his honor. Marchiani was eventually captured by German soldiers, tried, and sentenced to death.
At her execution, Marchiani reportedly walked out in front of the firing squad with a handkerchief over her heart; pointing at it, she spoke her last words: “Shoot well; shoot here.” She was honored posthumously with a gold medal of the Resistance.
4. If You Want to Celebrate a Sailor: Ching Shih
Maybe you really like sailing, and Columbus is one of the most famous seamen (pun intended because Columbus was a shitheel) out there. Consider switching to another famed seafarer: Ching Shih. Little is known about her early life, as she first turns up in records around 1801; most historians and storytellers describe her as a sex worker taken as the wife of Cheng I, a feared Chinese pirate. After Cheng I died in a storm in 1807, Ching Shih stayed aboard, married his First Mate, and started running the whole show herself.
Her strict codes of conduct were unlike anything any other pirate captain had going: loot a village that had provided shelter or support to the ship’s crew? Beheading. Steal from her treasury? Beheading. Assault female prisoners? Beheading. She became incredibly powerful incredibly fast, travelling up and down the Chinese coastline with her Red Flag Fleet, scooping up incredible amounts of loot, and rarely losing a battle. In 1808, when the Chinese government got wary and sent the Navy to shut her down, Ching Shih sailed right out to meet them and proceeded to whoop ass, capturing sixty-three Navy ships, boatloads of soldiers, and would have caught the Admiral himself had he not committed suicide rather than be taken alive. She spent the next two years facing down British and Dutch warships called in by the Chinese government to take down her fleet, and won every single time.
In 1810, the Chinese government offered her and her 17,000 men general amnesty, which she accepted. Despite her departure from pirate life, Ching Shih didn’t ever settle down; she kept her loot, opened up a casino, and ran it until she died at the age of 69.
5. If You’re Just Into Dudes Named Christopher Columbus: Chris Columbus
Hey, to each their own, right? I’m not judging your priorities. Being a Columbus aficionado, you probably already know Chris Columbus, but you’re making this pretty hard for me so beggars can’t be choosers. Chris Columbus is a filmmaker who’s basically the American Fellini, having directed such modern classics as Home Alone, Home Alone 2, and Mrs. Doubtfire. He also directed the worst Harry Potter movies (this is not up for debate) and The Help though, so, you know, kind of a mixed bag.