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This Columbus Day, Celebrate Lucy Kramer Cohen

Columbus Day is a day set aside for commemorating the explorer Christopher Columbus’ landing in the New World. While most of us enjoy a relaxing day off from work or school and don’t really think about the meaning behind the holiday or why it’s observed, more and more people are beginning to question whether or not Columbus Day should be a holiday at all. While Columbus did much to establish lasting contact between Europe and the Americas, he also perpetrated horrendous atrocities against the Native American population, and played a significant role in its collapse. He was by no means the only European explorer to mistreat, discriminate against, and kill Native Americans, but his actions still beg the question: Should we observe a holiday that celebrates someone who committed such egregious acts?

Lucy Kramer Cohen (1907-2007) was an advocate for Native Americans, and spent much of her career, along with her husband Felix, fighting for their rights. Felix was hired by President Franklin Roosevelt to draft what became the Indian Reorganization Act. Lucy was knowledgeable about Native American cultures and about economics, and she and Felix discussed how to reform the legal and economic opportunities for Native Americans. When Roosevelt introduced the “Indian New Deal,” his initiative to improve living conditions for Native Americans, Lucy became thoroughly involved. She worked, often as a volunteer, to help Felix and other members of the Interior Department staff, and also did research and wrote articles about the Native American experience.  In addition, she traveled to places where Native Americans lived to learn firsthand about their lives and develop relationships with them. While World War II brought an end to the “Indian New Deal,” and Felix met an untimely death from cancer in 1953, Lucy worked to honor and build upon Felix’s efforts, and she never stopped fighting for Native American causes.

During this Columbus Day week, it is important to remember that Lucy was fighting against conditions for Native Americans that were made possible by Columbus himself. Still today, we can trace much of the current state of affairs for this group back to Columbus’ actions and attitudes, and to those of other European explorers who traversed what is now the United States during this era of exploration and colonization. This history lives with us, and continues to shape our world.

Columbus arguably paved the way for the birth of our nation, but we must remember that this came with enormous cost, namely the almost complete destruction of our country’s indigenous population and its culture. Individuals like Lucy Kramer Cohen who dedicated their lives to reversing some of this damage and to creating better conditions for the Native Americans are still here, but much of what was lost can never be regained. Let that be what we remember today.

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Lucy Kramer Cohen and Navajo Women circa 1937-38
Full image
Lucy Cohen with two Navajo weavers and their daughters outside a hogan about 1937-38.
Courtesy of Felix S. and Lucy Kramer Cohen Photograph Collection.
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How to cite this page

Klebe, Larisa. "This Columbus Day, Celebrate Lucy Kramer Cohen ." 12 October 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 25, 2018) <https://jwa.org/blog/this-columbus-day-celebrate-lucy-kramer-cohen>.

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