Tensions persist between the legacy of Christopher Columbus, the natives


Monday’s federal holiday dedicated to Christopher Columbus highlights the continuing divide between those who see the explorer as a representative of Italian-American history and others horrified by an annual tribute that ignores the natives whose life and culture were forever changed by colonialism.

Spurred by national calls for racial equity, communities across the United States have taken a closer look at the legacy of Columbus in recent years, associating or replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day.

On Friday, President Joe Biden issued the first presidential proclamation of “Indigenous Peoples Day,” the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Columbus.

But activists, including members of Native American tribes, said the end of the official holiday in Columbus’s name has been thwarted by politicians and organizations focusing on Italian-American heritage.

“The opposition tried to portray Columbus as a benevolent man, the same way white supremacists portrayed Robert E. Lee, said Les Begay, Dine Nation member and co-founder of the Peoples Day Coalition. natives 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 the indigenous peoples already living in the Western Hemisphere.

“Failing 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, tension over the two holidays has been playing out since the early 1990s. Debates over monuments and statues of the Italian explorer are advancing 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 police officer. 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 Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration to uncover the statue, said on Saturday that many felt efforts to remove it were an attack on Italian-American heritage. .

Kenney previously signed an executive order changing the city’s annual holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Monday will be the first public 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 Peoples Day by fiat,” said said Bochetto.

Kenney’s spokesman, Kevin Lessard, said the statue should remain locked up “in the best interests 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 new addition, including the unveiling of a statue honoring the first Native American physician, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte.

Some think that a split day causes more harm. Activists are planning a small protest outside the Robert V. Denney Federal Building, calling for an outright end to the vacation 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, the annual Columbus Day Parade returns after a year-long in-person absence attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. The parade is billed by some as the biggest celebration of Columbus Day in the world.

In May, Italian-American activists complained after the Board of Education erased Columbus Day from the New York school calendar, replacing it with “Indigenous Peoples Day”. Following the outcry, the schools changed the designation to: “Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous Peoples Day”.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said he supported 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 arbitrarily changed,” de Blasio said.

Chicago’s annual Columbus Day Parade also returns Monday after the pandemic forced the 2020 cancellation of the event that 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 removed and said the protests put protesters and police at risk.

She then set up a committee to review the city’s monuments, including the fate of the Columbus monuments. No plan has been publicly announced, but the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans planning the Columbus Day Parade this summer has sued the city park district, demanding that one be restored.

Ron Onesti, president of the organization, said the parade usually draws protesters and expects that to happen on Monday as well. He sees the holiday, parade and statues as a celebration of Italian American contributions to the United States, not just Columbus.

“The outcome I’m looking for is that our traditions are respected and conversations continue,” Onesti said Saturday. “Each plaque that accompanies a statue indicates that it recognizes the contributions of the Italian community. So people need to figure out why it’s there and then let’s sit down and see where to go from here.”

In 2017, Illinois designated the last Monday in September as Indigenous Peoples Day, but kept Columbus Day on the second Monday in October. A proposal to replace Columbus Day filed this year has not received any action.

Chicago Public Schools voted in 2020 to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, sparking outrage from several groups of aldermen and Italian Americans. The city’s holiday calendar still lists Columbus Day.

Begay, the Indigenous Peoples Day advocate, said the organization decided to focus on bringing change to Columbus Day in Cook County first, hoping it would be an easier path than convincing the state or Chicago officials. But so far, county board members have not sided with the proposal.

“Why are more than 500 years still forgotten? said Begay. “Why don’t we have this one day to recognize these horrific atrocities committed against the natives?”


Associated Press reporter Lawrence Neumeister in New York contributed to this report.


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