NEW YORK -- Is it time to say arrivederci to Christopher Columbus?
A movement to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day has gained momentum in some parts of the U.S., with Los Angeles in August becoming the biggest city yet to decide to stop honoring the Italian explorer and instead recognize victims of colonialism.
Austin, Texas, followed suit Thursday. It joined cities including San Francisco, Seattle and Denver, which had previously booted Columbus in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day.
But the gesture to recognize indigenous people rather than the man who opened the Americas to European domination also has prompted howls of outrage from some Italian-Americans, who say eliminating their festival of ethnic pride is culturally insensitive, too.
"We had a very difficult time in this country for well over a hundred years," said Basil Russo, president of the Order Italian Sons and Daughters of America. "Columbus Day is a day that we've chosen to celebrate who we are. And we're entitled to do that just as they are entitled to celebrate who they are."
It's not about taking anything away from Italian-Americans, said Cliff Matias, cultural director of the Redhawk Native American Arts Council, which is hosting a Re-Thinking Columbus Day event Sunday and Monday in New York.
"The conversation is Columbus," he said. "If they're going to celebrate Columbus, we need to celebrate the fact that we survived Columbus."
The debate over Columbus' historical legacy is an old one, but it became emotionally charged after a similar debate in the South over monuments to Confederate generals flared into deadly violence in August at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In Akron, Ohio, a September vote over whether to dump Columbus opened a racial rift on the city council that was so heated conflict mediators were brought in to sooth tensions.
In New York, where 35,000 people are expected to march in Monday's Columbus Day parade, vandals last month doused the hands of a Christopher Columbus statue in blood-red paint and scrawled the words "hate will not be tolerated." Activists calling for the city to change the parade's name also are expected to hold a demonstration.
On Sunday, three demonstrators briefly interrupted a wreath-laying ceremony at the Columbus statue in Columbus Circle. The protesters, two dressed in fake chains and one wearing a hooded white sheet, spoke out before being escorted away. Police said one person was arrested.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, appointed a committee to evaluate whether monuments to certain historical figures should be removed, prompting a backlash from fellow Italian-Americans who vowed to defend the Columbus statue, which has stood over Columbus Circle for more than a century.
"Happy Columbus Day," tweeted former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who lives in New York. "Honor our heritage. Leave the statues alone."
Many Italians who migrated to the U.S. initially had a rough time. In 1891, 11 Italians were lynched in New Orleans by a mob that held them responsible for the death of a police official.
At the end of the 1800s, Italians began to link themselves more with Columbus. Italian-American businessman and newspaper owner Generoso Pope was among those who worked to get Columbus Day recognized as a federal holiday in 1937.
"It was one of the things that would allow them to become Americans symbolically," said Fred Gardaphe, a professor of Italian-American studies at Queens College.
Indigenous Peoples Day began to gel as an idea before the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage to the Americas.
South Dakota began celebrating Native American Day on the second Monday of October in 1990. Berkeley, California, got rid of Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992.
Many places that have adopted Indigenous Peoples Day since then, including Alaska, have sizable Native American populations.
A few cities have compromised. Salt Lake City officials declared they would keep Columbus Day but celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the same day.
In Akron, a city with few Native Americans and a large Italian-American community, an attempt to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day on Sept. 11 split the all-Democrat city council along racial lines. Five black members voted to rename the holiday, and eight white members voted against it, following a debate that devolved into shouting.
"The first voyage of Columbus to the Americas initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It would lead to the kidnapping, deaths and slavery of tens of millions of African people," said Councilman Russel Neal, who is black.
But Councilman Jeff Fusco, who is Italian-American, said, "It's a celebration of Italian heritage. It's very similar to other days throughout the year that we celebrate for many other cultures."
States and municipalities aren't legally bound to recognize federal holidays, though most do. Columbus Day is already one of the most inconsistently celebrated. Places that choose to replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day may give their own workers or schoolchildren a day off, teach in schools about Native Americans instead of Columbus, issue proclamations or mark it in other ways.
There is no question that Columbus' arrival in the New World under the sponsorship of Spain was bad for the indigenous people of Hispaniola, the island he colonized that is now split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Many of the native people of the island were forced into servitude. Multitudes died of disease. Spain repopulated the workforce with African slaves.
Columbus is celebrated in Latin America, too. A massive monument to the explorer, the Columbus Lighthouse, opened in 1992 in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico commemorates Discovery Day on Nov. 19, marking the day Columbus landed there.
Ralph Arellanes, chairman of the activist group Hispano Round Table of New Mexico, said that as a Hispanic he supports Columbus Day.
"It was the marriage of two peoples creating a new people, in a new land," he said.
Though Columbus "wasn't a saint," he said, he believes Anglo-Americans like President Andrew Jackson should be held more responsible than the Spanish for the hardships Native Americans faced.
Arellanes also said he doesn't understand why Italians claim Columbus for themselves when Columbus was sailing for Spain.
About the National Christopher Columbus Association
The most prominent commemorative figure of Christopher Columbus in the nation's capital, the only U.S. jurisdiction named for Columbus, stands in a marble fountain setting in a plaza in front of one of the great landmark buildings in the city , Union Station opposite the U.S. Capitol. Dedicated in 1912 before a crowd of nearly 20,000 individuals including President Taft and cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, members of the U.S. Congress, thousands of Knights of Columbus, and others, it has been a focal point for annual celebrations to honor the great navigator and discoverer. Over the decades the celebrations were held by various organizations. In 1934 Congress authorized and requested the President to issue an annual Columbus Day proclamation, and in 1968 declared Columbus Day a public holiday, commencing in 1971 .
After that time there was a gradual evolution of planning for the annual Columbus Day event, which involved the Knights of Columbus, Italian American organizations, U.S. military organizations, the diplomatic corps--especially Italy, Spain, and The Bahamas --and the National Park Service. In 1989 these efforts culminated in the organization of The Washington Columbus Celebration Association, which has been responsible since then for the yearly Columbus Day event. It was renamed the National Columbus Celebration Association in 1999, and in 2014, after a lengthy discussion and a decision to broaden its mission, it was renamed once again, becoming the National Christopher Columbus Association. It is governed by a board of directors elected by its general membership , with officers chosen annually by the board.
Mission of the Association
The Association seeks to honor not only the memory of Columbus and his historic achievement in linking the Old World and the New, but also the higher values that motivated and sustained him in his efforts and trials. These virtues--his faith, the courage of his convictions, dedication to purpose, perseverance in effort, professional excellence, and boldness in facing the unknown --are as appropriate today as they were in his time. The Association invites individuals and organizations who identify with these purposes to join the membership . Members reside in about a third of the states, and each year a number of wreath presenters representing national patriotic societies fly to Washington for the ceremonies. The newly-established category of national patron provides a way for people to help honor the memory of Columbus if they do not choose to become regular members of the Association. (View the insignia of the of the Association.)
Other Organizations Involved
The two organizations whose representatives were most instrumental in bringing the Association into being were the Knights of Columbus (K. of C.) and the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) . The celebrations were and are conducted in cooperation with the National Park Service. Later two additional national organizations became more intimately involved in the celebrations: the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF ) and the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR), which collaborate in the sponsorship and administration of the national student essay contest on Columbus. The reading of the winning essay by its writer is a feature of the annual celebrations at the national Columbus Memorial. NIAF also provided for some social functions in connection with the annual celebrations. In addition, the Washington-area Lido Civic Club became involved in providing for the printing of quality covers for the annual program books, and in co-sponsoring (with the Knights of Columbus of DC) the annual religious celebration the Sunday preceding the civic holiday. The Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation has since 2002 scheduled their annual awards dinner to follow our Columbus Day ceremonies at the Columbus Memorial. A number of other national patriotic societies (and local branches as well) have also been participating as wreath-presenters sine the mid-1990s, as listed in the program book for each year's celebration.
National Park Service
Knights of Columbus
National Society Daughters of the American Revolution
National Italian-American Foundation
Lido Civic Club of Washington
Order Sons of Italy in America
Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation
You may contact us by filling out a short on-line form.
National Christopher Columbus Association - 5034 Wisconsin Avenue, NW - Washington, D.C. 20016-4125