I woke up today to a text from my oldest stating: ‘Happy Indigenous People’s Day.’ So I had to jump on google calendars and look to see what I had missed. Nope- the google calendar still states- Federal Holiday- Columbus Day. However, all the major museums, government buildings, military installations, History.com, and the Smithsonian are posting articles on Indigenous Peoples Day.
I wondered when this change had officially happened. Now, I am not complaining- I just did not know that this was a conversation at the Federal level kitchen table. I must have missed those segments on the news channels, newspaper articles, and social media clips.
However, because I am an inquiring soul…I want to know why the change came about, who started it, and how the Italian Americans feel about this. I had written a blog back in December 2020- ‘Socialism, Columbus Day, and the Pledge of Allegiance. How are they related? In that blog, I had a challenging discussion about why America had clung to the notion of celebrating Christopher Columbus after the Civil War and what it meant to the spluttering country.
Side Note: In Italian, he is known as Cristoforo Colombo, which was long thought to be his birth name, and in Spanish as Cristóbal Colón. However, he has also been referred to, by himself and others, as Christoual, Christovam, Christofferus de Colombo, and even Xpoual de Colón.
Quick recap from that original blog:
Once upon a time, there was a man named Francis Bellamy from upstate New York. Originally an ordained Baptist minister, Francis one day turned from the life of religion to journalism. However, he did not stray too far- he got a job from one of his Boston Congregants, Daniel S. Ford, who owned and was editor of Youth’s Companion– a family magazine with over 500,000 subscribers.
Francis was assigned to the promotions department and worked on a project with the schools on a patriotic program to coincide with the Columbian Exposition’s opening ceremonies in October 1892. Francis was a Baptist minister, a prominent member of the Christian Socialist movement, a Free Mason, and a National Education Association committee chairman.
It was the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the New World, and Francis thought it was something to be celebrated. He even petitioned Congress and helped convince President Benjamin Harrison to declare a ‘Columbus Day,’ a day of observance to honor not only Columbus but the “four completed centuries of American Life.” The Knights of Columbus lobbied state legislatures to declare October 12 a legal holiday. On April 1, 1907, Colorado was the first state to do so, followed by New York in 1909. President Franklin Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the second Monday in October as Columbus Day, now a federal holiday.
Nevertheless, why all the fuss about a person that never set foot on United States soil? Well, we need to realize that this is only 27 years after the Civil War, and the country needed something to bind it together. Washington Irving had published a book in 1828 entitled A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. The book was highly glorified and the stuff of myth’s- but it was a significant publication for the war-torn country when they needed a ‘hero.’ And Christopher Columbus was going to be that hero.
Side note: This book was also responsible for the incorrect belief that people thought the world was flat until after Christopher Columbus’s travels.
The proclamation celebrating Christopher Columbus also came right after the most significant mass lynchings in the United States in New Orleans (1891), when 11 Sicilian immigrants were unfairly and illegally lynched after the city’s police commissioner was killed. The media blamed the local Italian community. Local media had portrayed Italians as ‘short of stature, dark in complexion, cruel and shifty,’ and the community quickly slandered them. Sadly the 11 Sicilians were found not guilty by the court of law, but that did not sway public opinion, and the local community took matters into their own hands. As the New York Times wrote:
Yet while every good citizen will readily assent to the proposition that this affair is to be deplored, it would be difficult to find any one individual would confess that privately he deplores it very much.
The holiday writes historian Bénédicte Deschamps:
Allowed Italian-Americans to celebrate at the same time their Italian identity, their Italian-American group specificity, and their allegiance to America.
For Italian Americans, Columbus Day is the centerpiece of the Italian Heritage Month, celebrated every October. They argue that the holiday honors the history of immigration, not the explorer. Therefore, they believe the name should be retained or changed to something more appropriate, like Italian Heritage Day.
It is essential to acknowledge that the argument over this particular Federal holiday is not a new one. As far back as the 1800s, anti-immigrant groups in the U.S. rejected the holiday not because of its desire to promote the Native American plight; but because of its association with the Catholic Church.
Arguments grew into protests over the celebration of the event that resulted in the colonization of the Americas, the beginning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and the eventual death of millions from slavery, murder, and diseases.
The Amerian Indian Movement (AIM) compared Columbus Day celebrations in the U.S. to the Germans establishing a holiday to celebrate Adolf Hitler:
Columbus was the beginning of the American holocaust, ethnic cleansing characterized by murder, torture, raping, pillaging, robbery, slavery, kidnapping, and forced removals of Indian people from their homelands. …We say that to celebrate the legacy of this murderer is an affront to all Indian peoples, and others who truly understand this history.
It began as a counter-celebration held on the same day as the U.S. federal holiday of Columbus Day. Many reject celebrating him, saying that he represents “the violent history of the colonization in the Western Hemisphere.” Indigenous People’s Day was instituted in Berkeley, California, in 1992 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas on October 12, 1492. Two years later, Santa Cruz, California, instituted the holiday. According to the internet, starting in 2014, many other cities and states adopted the holiday.
So when did it change? Is it official? What are we as Americans celebrating on October 11?
Did you know that 13 states do not celebrate Columbus Day (Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, DC, Wisconsin)? South Dakota officially celebrates Native American Day instead.
The following locations celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day (except Lewiston, New York, Tompkins County): New York, West Hartford, Connecticut, and Lawton, Oklahoma, which celebrate both. In addition, Akron, Ohio, celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the first Monday of October as North American First People’s Day, and Columbus Day has been since renamed as Italian-American Heritage and Culture Day. In Hawaii, Discoverers’ Day is celebrated rather than Columbus Day. Discoverers’ Day pays homage to the Polynesian explorers who sailed to the New World.
In 2020, Colorado replaced Columbus Day with Cabrini Day, in honor of Frances Xavier Cabrini. The Italian-American Roman Catholic nun helped establish over 67 schools, hospitals, and orphanages in the United States and South and Central America.
The movement to alter the name has also gained ground in Latin America. Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, and Uruguay have all renamed Columbus Day to Día de la Raza, or Day of the Race. The holiday celebrates Latin America’s mixed indigenous and European heritage and culture. In addition, Venezuela and Nicaragua’s “Día de la Resistencia Indígena,” or Day of the Indigenous Resistance, honors the indigenous population’s past and ongoing struggles.
On October 8, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden became the first U.S. President to formally recognize the holiday by signing a presidential proclamation declaring October 11 to be Indigenous People’s Day a National holiday.
I have decided not to go into the history of Christopher Columbus and his treatment of the Taino people, which led to his eventual arrest and removal of his title as governor of Hispaniola. I believe that is a conversation for another day, for all history, good or bad, should be remembered. So, instead, this was a conversation about the Federal holiday and why we shifted from one celebration to another.
It is a complicated conversation because do we forego the achievements of the Italian community because of one person? Do we instead look at the overall effect of exploration and deem the effects from it should erase that part of history? Is there a way to celebrate both cultures without stripping away one?
I had thought that there was already an answer!
October marks Italian-American Heritage Month by recognizing the contributions and achievements of Italian-Americans. Over 26 million Americans of Italian descent currently reside in the U.S. — making up America’s seventh-largest ethnic group. The heritage month is in October to coincide with Columbus Day. Italian-American Heritage Month celebrates the distinguished cultural contributions of Americans with Italian lineage.
Side Note: Amerigo Vespucci, who explored the east coast of South America between 1499 and 1502, is the source of the name “America.”
Native American Heritage Month had evolved from its beginnings as a week-long celebration in 1986, when President Reagan proclaimed November 23-30, 1986, as American Indian Week. Every President since 1995 has issued annual proclamations designating the month of November as the time to celebrate the culture, accomplishments, and contributions of people who were the first inhabitants of the United States.
I leave the question in your court. I am just the bearer of historical reasoning behind certain events, or as I like to say…. ‘Because of this, that…’. However, with all my blogs- I invite you to do more research on the topics of Christopher Columbus, the Italian heritage, and the Native American heritage.
And as always… Be Great at something you are Good at!