Monday’s federal holiday dedicated to Christopher Columbus highlights the lingering rift between those who view the Explorer as a representative of Italian-American history and others horrified by an annual tribute that ignores the indigenous peoples whose lives and culture were forever changed by colonialism.
Spurred on by national calls for racial fairness, communities across the United States have taken a closer look at Columbus’ legacy in recent years – by associating or replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day.
On Friday, President Joe Biden issued the first presidential proclamation of “Indigenous Peoples Day,” the most important impetus to date in efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Columbus.
But activists, including members of Native American tribes, said the end of the official Columbus name vacation was blocked by politicians and organizations focusing on Italian-American heritage.
“The opposition tried to portray Columbus as a benevolent man, in the same way that white supremacists painted 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.
The arrival of Columbus began centuries of exploration and colonization by European nations, bringing violence, disease and other suffering to indigenous peoples already living in the Western Hemisphere.
“Failure to honor indigenous peoples on this day continues to erase our history, our contributions and the fact that we were the original inhabitants of this country,” Begay said.
Across the country, the tension, over the two public holidays, has been playing out since the early 1990s. Debates over monuments and statues of the Italian explorer are treading on similar ground, as in Philadelphia where the city has placed a box on a statue of Columbus last year following the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis policeman. Protesters opposing racial injustice and police brutality against people of color rallied for months in the summer of 2020.
Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto, who fought against Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration to uncover the statue, said on Saturday many viewed the efforts to remove it as an attack on Italian-American heritage.
Kenney previously signed an executive order changing the city’s annual Columbus Day celebration to Indigenous Peoples Day. Monday will be the city’s first public holiday under the new name.
“We have a mayor who is doing all he can to attack the Italian-American community, including canceling his parade, removing statues, changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day by decree,” said Bochetto .
Kenney’s spokesperson Kevin Lessard said the statue should remain wrapped “in the best interest and public safety of all Philadelphians.”
In 2016, Lincoln, Nebraska joined other cities in adding Indigenous Peoples Day to the calendar on the same date as Columbus Day. Monday’s events will focus on the most recent addition, including the unveiling of a statue in honor of the first Native American physician, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte.
Some believe that a split day causes even more harm. Activists are planning a small protest outside the Robert V. Denney Federal Building, calling for an outright end to the holidays on behalf of Columbus at all levels of government.
“It is patently absurd to honor indigenous peoples and the man who tortured and murdered their ancestors,” said Jackson Meredith, an organizer. “As far as we are concerned, we will continue to protest until Columbus Day is abolished.”
In New York City, the annual Columbus Day Parade returns after a one-year in-person absence attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. The parade is touted by some as the biggest Columbus Day celebration in the world.
In May, Italian-American activists complained after the Board of Education removed Columbus Day from the New York City school calendar, replacing it with “Indigenous Peoples Day”. Following the outcry, schools changed the designation to: “Italian Heritage Day / Indigenous Peoples Day”.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he supports the compromise.
“We must 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.
The annual Columbus Day Parade in Chicago also returns on Monday after the pandemic forced the event to be canceled in 2020 which draws 20,000 people. It’s a vivid reminder of the ongoing fight for three statues of Columbus, still in storage by the city after protesters targeted them in the summer of 2020.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot in July 2020 ordered the statues to be removed and said the protests endangered protesters and police.
She then created a committee to examine the city’s monuments, including the fate of the monuments of Columbus. No plan has been publicly announced, but the Joint Italian-American Civic Committee planning the Columbus Day parade this summer has sued the city’s park district, demanding it be restored.
Ron Onesti, the organization’s chairman, said the parade usually attracts protesters and expects that on Monday as well. He sees the holidays, parade, and statues as a celebration of the contributions of Italian Americans to the United States, not just to Columbus.
“The result I am looking for is (for) our traditions to be respected and conversations to continue,” Onesti said on Saturday. “Each plaque that accompanies a statue indicates that it recognizes the contributions of the Italian community. So people have to figure out why it’s there, and then let’s sit down and figure out where to go from here.
In 2017, Illinois designated the last Monday in September as Indigenous Peoples Day, but maintained Columbus Day as the second Monday in October. A proposal to replace Columbus Day tabled this year has not received any action.
Chicago public schools in 2020 voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, sparking outrage from several aldermen and Italian-American groups. The city’s public holiday calendar still lists Columbus Day.
Begay, the advocate for Indigenous Peoples Day, said the organization decided to focus on changing Columbus Day in Cook County first, hoping it would be an easier route than convincing officials state or Chicago. But so far, members of the county’s board of directors have not sided with the proposal.
“Why are more than 500 years still forgotten? Said Bégay. “Why don’t we have this one day to recognize these horrific atrocities committed against native people? “
Associated Press Reporter Lawrence Neumeister in New York contributed to this report.