Indigenous People and Columbus Day

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The Socratic Oath says “Do No Harm.” In politics the equivalent must be “Avoid all Trouble.” Unfortunately, I have recently found myself drawn to trouble much like a moth to the flame.

When the Mayor invited the Seattle City Council to join him in recognizing our continent’s First Peoples contributions to the United States by instituting an Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Columbus Day, all hell seemed to break loose.

People expressed shock that we would eliminate Columbus Day and “disrespect” Italian heritage by adding to the second Monday in October an observation of Native American culture. One Florida trucker even called from the road suggesting we all face a firing squad.

Seattle’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day does not, of course, abolish Columbus Day. Columbus Day has been, and remains, a national holiday.columbus

I have the good fortune of being one of only three people with an Italian surname elected to the Seattle City Council in the last one hundred years. I limit this to surnames because there could have been others of Italian descent. It is not apparent from their names.

This lead me to meet with a number of prominent Italian civic and business leaders in my office to discuss my role as the defender of Italian pride and culture. This was the first opportunity I had to discuss this particular topic in the 16 years I’ve been on the council. Then again, I had not previously opened my mouth (aperto la bocca) to question the appropriateness of celebrating Columbus Day as something other than Italian Pride Day.

I am proud of my Italian heritage, though I did not follow my grandfather’s profession of being a barber. I am also proud to honor the heritage of many others with whom I share this country, especially those who lived here before Europeans came.

Let me set the context. Columbus discovered the New World for Europeans. Those already living here were aware of it. Columbus was an Italian – actually from Genoa, not strictly Italian, since Italy had to wait about three hundred more years to come into existence. But, Italians as a distinct ethnic group can be traced back to the Roman Republic and its Italian allies.

Columbus+NativesAlthough Columbus Day first became an official state holiday in Colorado in 1906 and Franklin Roosevelt declared it a federal holiday in 1937, our nation has celebrated Columbus Day since Colonial times, though not universally. Currently, Washington State, Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota do not recognize it as a legal State holiday.

In 1792, New York City and other U.S. cities celebrated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World. President Benjamin Harrison called upon the people of the United States to celebrate Columbus Day on the 400th anniversary of the event. During the four hundredth anniversary in 1892, teachers, preachers, poets and politicians used Columbus Day rituals to teach ideals of patriotism. These patriotic rituals were framed around themes such as support for war, citizenship boundaries, the importance of loyalty to the nation, and celebrating social progress.

According to the Pew Research Center, Columbus Day is now one of the most inconsistently celebrated U.S. holidays. Federal employees get the day off, but in only 23 states is it a paid holiday for non-federal workers.

National Public Radio reports that since the 1980s, Denver’s American Indian Movement has taken to the streets almost every year to protest Columbus Day, with their demonstrations frequently ending in arrests. And, anti-Columbus sentiment extends beyond the U.S. to Chile, where last year Mapuche activists held anti-Columbus demonstrations that turned violent; to Guatemala, where 2002 protests shut down highways across the country; and to Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, and Venezuela.

So, at the core of the current controversy surrounding Columbus Day is the question: what are we celebrating?

For many who claim Italian heritage, and for some who do not, it is an ethnic holiday akin to St. Patrick’s day representing Irish heritage. The irony here is that St. Patrick was actually British, having been kidnapped at the age of 16 and spirited off to Ireland.

Our flawed hero Columbus has been heralded over the centuries for a discovery that came at a terrible cost to those he found inhabiting that world.

His mission was to search for gold and the continent of Asia. In just 2 years, his quest resulted in the death of half of the 250,000 or so indigenous population of Haiti, due to murder, mutilation or mass suicide under the conditions Columbus created. This comes from a young priest named Bartolome de las Casas, who participated in Columbus’ conquest of the new world.

The Taino indians of Hispaniola (presently Haiti and the Dominican Republic), where Columbus ran his gold and cotton industry, were enslaved via the encomienda system, which resembled a feudal system in Medieval Europe. According to the historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, by 1548, 56 years after Columbus landed, fewer than five hundred of the original 250,000 Taino remained on the island.

History is written by the victors, not by those defeated, and certainly not by those driven into extinction.

Many Latin America nations celebrate Columbus Day as Día de la Raza, or “Day of the Race.” In the U.S., the holiday is generally observed by banks, the bond market, the U.S. Postal Service, other federal agencies, most state government offices, many businesses, and most school districts. However, actual observance varies in different parts of the U.S., ranging from large-scale parades and events to complete non-observance. California and Texas actually abolished Columbus Day as a paid holiday for their government workers.

Slowly, society has come to realize it needs to recognize something beyond a conquering hero, that we all need to aknowledge and respect the once-dominant cultures that present cultures replaced, along with their descendants who remain with us today.

Seattle leaders have chosen to celebrate Indigenous Peoples on Columbus Day in order to commemorate the discovery of the Americas alongside the indigenous populations of those Americas forever changed by it.

I now consider the second Monday in October to be a day when everyone’s strengths can be recognized, rather than their failings.

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