What, exactly, are we supporting or celebrating on Columbus Day? Well, that would depend on your perspective. For some, it is a traditional American holiday in honor of when the Colonies were discovered. To the Italians and Native Americans, it is a day to reflect and remember all that their people had suffered and endured. To others, it’s just another day of work, albeit with perhaps less traffic during the commute, and the inconvenience of banks being closed.
Whatever the cause, this century-long traditional holiday is stuck in the middle of a politically-charged fighting ring, with each opponent trying to claim the day for their own – or, as in Columbus, Ohio, of all places, do away with the holiday altogether.
Columbus Out, Veterans In
Columbus, Ohio, the city named after the explorer, has decided that this year the town will not celebrate its namesake. But the reason for this decision is not what you think. Town officials didn’t decide to change the day to honor another group, such as Indigenous Day. It came down to the city choosing to honor Veterans on Veteran’s Day (November 12, this year) by giving their staff the day off with pay. Apparently, the city could not afford to give holiday pay for both days and chose not to observe Columbus Day in favor of its veterans. Good choice, I think.
But the war to claim the day still continues.
Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, and that’s when the oppression of the natives to the land began. To many Native Americans, Columbus Day is not a day to be celebrated with joy, but with hurt and tears for ancestors.
“For us, the bottom line is Columbus Day is just a celebration of genocide,” Roberto Borrero, the president of the United Confederation of Taino People, said.
For decades, there have been protests and proposals to rename this day for the Indigenous who suffered so much at the hands of the explorers. In 2017, Salt Lake City, Utah and Los Angeles, CA did exactly that.
But theirs isn’t the only tale of mistreatment and hardship. The Italians are fighting back, claiming their right to keep the holiday as it is.
Italian-Americans Defend Columbus Day
Even though the explorer who discovered the Americas was Italian, his native people did not get a very warm reception when they migrated to the colonies. They were treated with distain and distrust. It was the belief at the time that Italy was a land of cut-throats and Mafia – so why wouldn’t the migrants of said country be the same?
In 1911, the Dillingham Commission report declared: “Certain kinds of criminality are inherent in the Italian race. In the popular mind, crimes of personal violence, robbery, blackmail and extortion are peculiar to the people of Italy, and it can not be denied that the number of such offenses committed among Italians in this country warrants the prevalence of such a belief.”
Italian-Americans were harassed and mistreated, with poor working conditions – if they could find work – fear, and oppression. In 1891, eleven Italian-American men were slaughtered by a mob in New Orleans.
Who Gets to Claim Columbus Day?
Like a juicy bone in a dogfight, everyone is trying to sink their teeth into the holiday to claim it for their own purposes. Were the Native Americans treated poorly? Absolutely. Were the Italian migrants met with hostility? Yes. But, what does that have to do with celebrating a man’s fantastic achievement – or, rather, the feat itself?
Humans throughout history are not known for their kind behavior. We are a race of conquerors, seeking out new lands and territories. As we look back throughout history, when has there not been a populous of peoples caught in the middle with atrocities heaped on them? The Native Americans, Italians, Irish, Africans, Christians, Catholics … on and on it goes. Columbus Day is not about the man, or the oppression of cultures during that time.
Basil M. Russo, the national president of the Order Italian Sons and Daughters of America said it best:
“Columbus Day is not a day that’s set aside to honor an individual, but rather is a day that’s set aside to recognize and honor a monumental historic event that began the process of over 500 years of worldwide immigration to America by oppressed people seeking a better life for their families.”