The federal holiday on Monday, dedicated to Christopher Columbus, underscores the persistent gap between those who consider the explorer as …
The federal holiday dedicated to Christopher Columbus on Monday underscores the lingering gap between those who consider the explorer to be a representative of Italian-American history and others who are appalled by an annual tribute ignoring indigenous people whose lives and culture are forever left by colonialism were changed.
Inspired by national demands for racial justice, communities in the United States have taken a closer look at the legacy of Columbus in recent years – combining or replacing it with the Day of the Indigenous Peoples.
On Friday, President Joe Biden published the first presidential proclamation of “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” the most significant boost to date in efforts to reorganize the National Day celebrating Columbus.
But activists, including members of Native American tribes, said ending the formal holiday in the name of Columbus has been hindered by politicians and organizations focused on the Italian-American heritage.
“The opposition has tried to portray Columbus as a benevolent man, much like white racists portrayed Robert E. Lee,” said Les Begay, a member of the Diné Nation and co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition of Illinois, referring to the Civil War general who led the Confederate Army.
With the arrival of Columbus began centuries of exploration and colonization by European nations, bringing violence, disease and other suffering to the native people already living in the western hemisphere.
“Not honoring tribal peoples on that day continues to erase our history, our contributions, and the fact that we were the first to inhabit this land,” Begay said.
Tensions have risen across the country over the two holidays since the early 1990s. Debates over monuments and statues of the Italian explorer are similar to those in Philadelphia, where the city placed a box over a statue of Columbus last year after the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. In the summer of 2020, protesters gathered for months against racial injustice and police brutality against people of color.
Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto, who fought against the government of Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney to expose the statue, said Saturday that many efforts to remove it have viewed it as an attack on Italian-American heritage.
Kenney previously signed an executive order changing the city’s annual Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. Monday will be the first city holiday under the new name.
“We have a mayor who is doing everything in his power to attack the Italian-American community, including canceling the parade, removing statues and changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day by fiat,” said Bochetto.
Kenney spokesman Kevin Lessard said the statue should remain wrapped “in the best interests and public safety of all Philadelphians”.
In 2016, Lincoln, Nebraska joined other cities, adding Indigenous Peoples Day on the calendar on the same day as Columbus Day. Monday’s events will focus on the newer addition, including the unveiling of a statue honoring the first Native American female doctor, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte.
Some believe that a divided day does further harm. Activists are planning a small protest in front of the Robert V. Denney Federal Building, calling for a final end to the holiday on behalf of Columbus at all levels of government.
“It is obviously absurd to honor indigenous peoples and the man who tortured and murdered their ancestors,” said Jackson Meredith, an organizer. “As for us, we will continue to protest until Columbus Day is abolished.”
In New York City, the annual Columbus Day Parade returns after a year of personal absence due to the coronavirus pandemic. The parade is touted by some as the world’s largest celebration of Columbus Day.
In May, Italian-American activists complained after the Department of Education removed Christopher Columbus Day from the New York school calendar and replaced it with Indigenous Peoples Day. After the outcry, the schools changed the name to: “Day of the Italian Cultural Heritage / Day of the Indigenous Peoples”.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he supported the compromise.
“We have to honor this day as a day to recognize the contributions of all Italian Americans, so of course the day should not have been changed arbitrarily,” said de Blasio.
Chicago’s annual Columbus Day parade also returns Monday after the pandemic forced the 2020 event, which will attract 20,000 people, to be canceled. It’s a living reminder of the ongoing battle over three Columbus statues still being stored by the city after protesters targeted them in the summer of 2020.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the statues to be removed in July 2020, saying demonstrations would put protesters and police at risk.
She later formed a committee to review monuments in the city, including the fate of Columbus monuments. No plans have been publicly announced, but the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, which is planning the Columbus Day Parade this summer, sued the city’s park district, calling for a park to be restored.
Ron Onesti, the organization’s president, said the parade usually attracts protesters and expects the same on Monday. He sees the holiday, parade, and statues as a celebration of the contribution of Italian Americans to the United States, not just Columbus.
“The result I am looking for is that our traditions are respected and conversations continue,” Onesti said on Saturday. “Every plaque that goes with a statue shows that it recognizes the contributions of the Italian community. So people have to understand why it’s there and then we sit down and think about where to go from here. ”
Illinois declared the last Monday in September Indigenous Peoples Day in 2017, but kept Columbus Day on the second Monday in October. A proposal submitted earlier this year to replace Columbus Day received no action.
The Chicago Public Schools voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in 2020, causing outrage among several council members and Italian-American groups. The city’s holiday calendar still lists Columbus Day.
Begay, the advocate of Indigenous Peoples Day, said the organization had decided to focus on changing Columbus Day in Cook County first, in hopes that it would be an easier way to go than state or Chicago officials would do to convince. But so far the members of the district executive have not supported the proposal.
“Why are over 500 years still forgotten?” Said Begay. “Why don’t we have this one day to acknowledge these terrible atrocities against the indigenous people?”
Associated Press reporter Lawrence Neumeister in New York contributed to this report.
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