Monday’s federal holiday dedicated to Christopher Columbus is highlighting an ongoing divide between those who see the explorer as representative of Italian American history and others fearful of annual tributes that ignore the native people whose Life and culture were changed forever by colonialism.
Inspired by national calls for racial equality, communities across America have taken a deeper look at Columbus’ legacy in recent years – linking or replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day.
On Friday, President Joe Biden issued the first presidential proclamation of “Indigenous People’s Day,” the most significant boost to efforts to restart the federal holiday that celebrates Columbus.
But activists, including members of Native American tribes, said ending the formal holiday in the name of Columbus has led to a focus on Italian American heritage by politicians and organizations.
“The opposition has tried to portray Columbus as a philanthropist, just as white supremacists have portrayed Robert E. Lee,” said Les, a member of Dine Nation and co-founder of Illinois’s Indigenous People’s Day Coalition. Bege said, referring to the Civil War general who led the Confederate Army.
The arrival of Columbus marked the beginning of centuries of exploration and colonization by European nations, bringing violence, disease, and other suffering to native peoples already living in the Western Hemisphere.
“Not honoring indigenous peoples on this day continues to erode our history, our contributions and the fact that we were the first inhabitants of this country,” Bege said.
Tensions across the country, two holidays have been going on since the early 1990s. The debate over monuments and statues of the Italian explorer runs on similar ground, as in Philadelphia, where the city placed a box over a statue of Columbus in the wake of the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white Minneapolis police officer last year. . Protesters protesting racial injustice and police brutality against people of color rallied for months in the summer of 2020.
The plinth of a Christopher Columbus statue is shown defaced with paint from the ongoing anti-racism protests at Bird Park in Richmond, Virginia, on June 10, 2020. On the evening of June 9, protesters vandalized the statue. (Photo by Az Amos/Getty Images)
Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto, who is fighting Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration to uncover the statue, said on Saturday that many considered the efforts to remove it as an attack on Italian-American heritage.
Kenny previously signed an executive order to change the city’s annual Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous People’s Day. Monday will be the city’s first holiday under the new name.
“We have a mayor who is doing everything he can to attack the Italian American community, including canceling his parade, removing statues, changing the Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous People’s Day,” Bochetto said.
Kenny’s spokesman Kevin Lessard said the statue should be kept in the box “in the best interests of all Philadelphians and in the public safety”.
In 2016, Lincoln, Nebraska, joined other cities by adding Indigenous People’s Day to the calendar on the same date as Columbus Day. Events on Monday will focus on the new addition, including the unveiling of a statue honoring the first Native American physician, Dr. Susan La Flesh Picote.
A team removed a statue of Christopher Columbus from Columbus Green in Hartford last week. (Brad Horrigan / Hartford Courant / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Some people feel that a split day does more harm. Activists are planning a small protest outside the Robert V. Denny Federal Building, calling on all levels of government to end the holiday in the name of Columbus altogether.
“It is absolutely absurd to honor the person who tortured and killed indigenous people and their ancestors,” said Jackson Meredith, an organizer. “As far as we are concerned, we will continue to oppose it until Columbus Day is over.”
In New York City, the annual Columbus Day Parade returns after a year, in-person absences attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. The parade is seen by some as the largest Columbus Day celebration in the world.
In May, Italian American activists complained that the Board of Education erased Christopher Columbus Day from New York City’s school calendar, replacing it with “Indigenous People’s Day”. After the uproar, the schools changed the designation: “Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day.”
related: Swadeshi People’s Day? Italians Say Stay With Columbus
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he supported the deal.
“We have to honor that day as a day to recognize the contributions of all Italian Americans, so certainly that day should not have been arbitrarily changed,” de Blasio said.
Chicago’s annual Columbus Day parade also dates back to Monday after the pandemic forced the cancellation of an event that drew 20,000 people. It is a vivid reminder of the ongoing battle over the three statues of Columbus, which are still in warehouse after the city was targeted by protesters in the summer of 2020.
In July 2020, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the removal of the statues, saying the demonstrations were endangering protesters and police.
He later created a committee to review monuments in the city, including the fate of the Columbus monuments. None of the plans have been publicly announced, but the Joint Citizens Committee of Italian Americans, planning the Columbus Day parade this summer, sued the city’s Park District, demanding that one be reinstated.
The organization’s president, Ron Onesti, said the parade usually attracts demonstrators and is expected to take place on Monday as well. He sees the holiday, parades and statues as a celebration of the contribution of Italian Americans not only to Columbus, but to America.
“The outcome I am looking for is to honor our traditions and continue to negotiate,” Onesti said on Saturday. “Every plaque that goes with a statue says it recognizes the contribution of the Italian community. So people need to understand why it’s there, and then let’s sit down and figure out where to go from here Is.”
In 2017 Illinois designated the last Monday in September as Indigenous People’s Day but placed Columbus Day on the second Monday in October. There has been no action on a motion to replace Columbus Day, filed this year.
In 2020 Chicago public schools voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, sparking outrage from many alderman and Italian American groups. The city’s holiday calendar still lists Columbus Day.
Bege, an advocate for Indigenous People’s Day, said the organization decided to focus on replacing the first Columbus Day in Cook County, hoping it would be an easier route than convincing state or Chicago officials. But so far, county board members have not lined up behind the proposal.
“Why are more than 500 years still forgotten?” Bege said. “Why don’t we have a single day to recognize these terrible atrocities committed against the local people?”
Associated Press reporter Lawrence Neumeister in New York contributed to this report.