Columbus v. Indigenous Peoples’ Day

a statue of Columbus at Columbus Circle at Columbus Avenue

indigenous peoplesIn May 2019, the Institute of History Archaeology and Education’s Peter Feinman started a series of articles about Columbus Day versus Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Part I was A Lose-Lose War.

He noted how, in April, New Mexico, Vermont, and Maine all joined “the growing number of cities, states, and municipalities that have renamed the October holiday for the people who lived in America long before the explorer arrived.”

Yet the pieces announcing these changes often “fail to note that the indigenous people presumably being lifted up have actual proper names, which are seldom mentioned.” Conversely, the pieces about the ditching of Columbus Day were usually not simple articles “of reporting. It mocked Columbus as well.” This was not helpful.

How did the Genoan sailing for Spain become “a revered figure in the first place?” There must have been “reasons to explain how this individual, sometimes in the masculine form and sometimes in the feminine form ‘Columbia’ became a symbol of the country, the capital city of the country, the name of cities, and the name of the renamed Kings College that Alexander Hamilton had attended.”

In Part II, Columbus and America, Feinman noted: “From the capital of the country to the unofficial anthems of the country to the symbol of the country to a big extravaganza celebration, Italian immigrants who wanted to become part of the melting pot as Americans saw the place of importance Columbus had in their new country.

The Italians [were not considered] white when they arrived. [They] and went back even further in time [than the Irish or Germans] to link themselves to the American experience: all the way to Columbus, a person they knew America already revered. Those efforts would take physical and calendric form.

“In conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition, New York City erected a statue of Columbus at Columbus Circle at Columbus Avenue. A commission of Italian businessmen from around the United States contributed 60% of the funding needed to build the statue…

“The Knights of Columbus, an international Roman Catholic fraternal benefit society, lobbied state legislatures to declare October 12 a legal holiday. Colorado was the first state to do so on April 1, 1907.

“New York declared Columbus Day a holiday in 1909 and on October 12, 1909, New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes led a parade that included the crews of two Italian ships, several Italian-American societies, and legions of the Knights of Columbus. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt designated Columbus Day (then celebrated October 12) a national holiday in 1934.”

Part III tackled The Meaning of “Indigenous” and how tricky it is to truly define.

“The debate over Columbus Day provides an opportunity to discuss a number of serious issues” that I think have been addressed in an oversimplified manner.

Indigenous Peoples Day v. Columbus Day

Dumping Columbus Day seems unfortunate in that it becomes a zero-sum equation.

indianOctober 12, before the federal government turned it into a Monday holiday, was, Columbus Day in the US, to honor that guy “who sailed the ocean blue in 14 hundred 92.” However, several towns are instead celebrating Indigenous People’s Day.”

“For decades, celebrating ‘Columbus Day’ has been hotly debated. Many feel Christopher Columbus is largely responsible for the decimation of the Native Americans, and giving him a day of celebration just adds insult to injury.” In this blog, I’ve been supportive of this redesignation. Check out this article.

Still, I’m not quite sure if it’s the holiday one would really want. It seems to be mostly about sales, and a chance to get away and perhaps see the autumn colors before the cold weather comes.

Now, if there were some conversation about what Indigenous People means – see this video for a limited time, e.g. – maybe it’d be a more meaningful change. The Dakota Pipeline story was underreported because the Native Americans lack political muscle.

Still, dumping Columbus Day seems unfortunate in that it becomes a zero-sum equation: Indians, si, Italians, no. Columbus Day has always felt like some of those non-legal holiday celebrations, such as St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) for the suddenly Irish and Cinco de Mayo (May 5) for the ersatz Mexicans, only without all the alcoholic consumption. And there’s usually a parade!

But the Italian experience in America is interesting to me. As this article notes that when Columbus, who was Italian, but sailing for Spain arrived:

“We think of this day as when America became white. But nearly 400 years after Columbus, a large wave of Italians would arrive on American shores, and they would not be considered as such. The period between 1880-1920, known as ‘The Great Arrival,’ when at least three million Italians immigrated to the United States, created an era in which southern Italians had to become white.”

This is an interesting story, when, early on, they were considered black, especially in the South, and treated as such, which is to say, badly.

Maybe we can have some other, less polarizing, Italian-American’s birthday celebrated and learn more about our ever-changing country.