Today marks the first national Indigenous People’s Day. President Biden proclaimed this day as a day that “honors the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations.” This is ostensibly a huge step forward in the fight to move away from celebrating the man who initiated over 500 years of atrocities against Native Americans. However, President Biden also declared today to be Columbus Day. Can these two holidays coexist? Or do we need to take a stand?
Taking a stand seems easy when one doesn’t understand that the cultural issues surrounding Columbus Day are rooted in a history of systemic racism or when one only looks at systemic racism through one point of view. Therefore, we must analyze the issue through multiple vantage points.
First, Italian Americans, who by and large support the idea of Columbus Day, faced violent bigotry during mass immigration in the late 1800s and early 1900s due to their darker skin tones and Catholic faith. In order to escape the bigotry and rampant discrimination, Italians felt the need to assimilate themselves into American history and thus, into Whiteness. In order to become more “White,” Italian Americans gave up their language, their culture, and sought to associate themselves with historical figures such as Christopher Columbus. After all, by connecting themselves to Christopher Columbus, who was in fact Italian born although his voyages were Spanish sponsored, Italian Americans were able to take credit for America’s “discovery” and therefore, the existence of the White community in the United States. In fact, the first celebration of Columbus Day was a year after the 1891 New Orleans lynching of 11 Italian Americans in Louisiana when a white mob had sought vigilante justice for the murder of the local police chief although a jury had already acquitted the majority of the accused men. Hence, for many Italian Americans, the celebration is not specifically about Christopher Columbus but about their efforts to overcome racial discrimination and make a home in a new land.
Italian Americans were not the only community to try to assimilate into Whiteness. Because the criteria for being White was always undefined, allowing those in power to adjust the definition such that they could maintain power, this racial ascension has often been seen by immigrants and ethnic minorities as a way to overcome systemic racism. Asian Americans and Hispanics have also, at times, fought to accomplish the same; only thus far, Italian Americans and other Eastern Europeans have been alone in their success. Certainly, we cannot blame any group for wanting to escape persecution or any group for holding onto the generational trauma that results from such experiences.
However, at the same time, all of us have a responsibility to all minority groups who have experienced and/or continue to experience discrimination. Although the holiday moniker of Christopher Columbus Day may be ostensibly trivial to most Americans, the name perpetuates trauma to Native Americans by obscuring our nation’s racial history. Christopher Columbus and his crew, upon landing, caused immense harm to Native Americans in the form of pillaging, enslavement, and rape. His arrival also marked the beginning of nearly 500 years of genocide of Native Americans throughout the Americas, the effects of which are still suffered by remaining Native American people. When Columbus Day was established as a holiday in 1892, Native American children were being forcibly taken from their homes and being sent to “Indian Schools” so that the government could take their language and culture away from them. There are still men and women alive today who remember the horrors and abuses at these schools. Today, treaties continue to be disrespected. Native Americans continue to be disenfranchised. Hence, keeping the name suggests that it is okay to continue to traumatize underrepresented groups not only by ignoring their specific histories but also by disregarding the continued aggressions against them.
The solution is not easy. President Biden, in “A Proclamation on Columbus Day, 2021,” highlights the moral conflict. He states, “Today, millions of Italian Americans continue to enrich our country’s traditions and culture and make lasting contributions to our Nation — they are educators, health care workers, scientists, first responders, military service members, and public servants, among so many other vital roles.” Nevertheless, in his very next statement, he states, “For Native Americans, western exploration ushered in a wave of devastation: violence perpetrated against Native communities, displacement and theft of Tribal homelands, the introduction and spread of disease, and more.” Both of these statements are true, and he is right to acknowledge both.
What if we stop seeing this as a war and further Biden’s attempt to acknowledge both histories? What if we therefore were to drop Columbus Day and the honoring of a man who led slave raids against Native Americans, maimed Native Americans for not finding him enough gold, and killed them for trying to escape and instead honored those Italian Americans who have done so much good in our society? After all, a vile man like Christopher Columbus does not justly reflect the positive contributions of the Italian-American ethnic group. What if we were to have an Italian Heritage Week in October instead, similar to Hispanic Heritage Month or Black Heritage Month when we remember the struggles of a community that was once not considered White enough to be treated with respect and honor the contributions of those Italian Americans who have done good for their community and for the American society as a whole?
And what if were to celebrate today as nothing but Indigenous People’s Day and truly take the time to face our shameful history, study the atrocities committed against Native Americans since 1492, and celebrate the achievements of Native communities in spite of the discrimination they have faced? What if we were to study the issues facing Native Americans today, and what if we were to see how we can help alleviate these issues?
What if we were to come together to take a stand to always work for social justice such that no group continues to face the discrimination that BIPOC communities continue to face today? What if…
Today is the nation’s first Indigenous People’s Day. What will you do today to honor it?