Monday's federal holiday to Christopher Columbus highlights the continuing divide between those who see the explorer as an example of Italian American history, and those who are horrified at an annual tribute that neglects native people whose lives were forever altered by colonialism.
National calls for racial equality prompted communities across the U.S. to take a closer look at Columbus' legacy in recent decades -- replacing or pairing it with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Friday's proclamation by President Joe Biden of the "Indigenous Peoples Day" was the first in a series of presidential proclamations. This is the biggest boost to efforts to refocus federal holidays like Columbus.
However, activists, including members from Native American tribes, claimed that Columbus' formal holiday has been stopped by politicians and organizations focusing solely on the Italian American heritage.
"The opposition has tried painting Columbus as a kind and generous man, similar in style to how white supremacists have portrayed Robert E. Lee," Les Begay of Dine Nation, cofounder of the Indigenous Peoples Day Coalition of Illinois said. He was referring to the Civil War general, who led the Confederate Army.
Columbus's arrival triggered centuries of exploration and colonization in Europe by European nations. This brought violence, disease, and other suffering to the native people of the Western Hemisphere.
Begay stated, "Not honoring Indigenous Peoples on this Day just continues to erase history, our contributions, and the fact that this country was the first inhabitants of the country."
Since the 1990s, tension over these two holidays has been raging across the country. The debates over monuments or statues of the Italian explorer are similar to Philadelphia's last year, when a box was placed over a Columbus statue by the city in response to the death of George Floyd (a Black man) by a Minneapolis police officer. Protesters opposed to racial injustices and police brutality against people with color rallied for several months in summer 2020.
George Bochetto of Philadelphia, a Philadelphia lawyer, has been fighting Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney to uncover the statue. He said Saturday that many felt attempts to remove it were an attack against Italian-American heritage.
Kenney had previously signed an executive decree changing the city’s annual Columbus Day holiday into Indigenous Peoples Day. Monday will be the city's first holiday under the new title.
Bochetto stated that a mayor is doing everything possible to attack the Italian American community. He has cancelled its parade and removed statues.
Kevin Lessard, Kenney spokesperson, stated that the statue should be kept in its original box "in the best interests and public safety for all Philadelphians."
Lincoln, Nebraska joined other cities to add Indigenous Peoples Day to their calendars on the same day as Columbus Day 2016. Monday's events will be centered on the latest addition, which includes unveiling a statue in honor of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American doctor.
Jackson Meredith, an organizer, stated that it was absurd to honor Indigenous peoples and the man who tortured or murdered their ancestors. "We'll continue protesting until Columbus Day, as far as we are concerned.
New York City's annual Columbus Day Parade is back after a year of inactivity due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some consider the parade to be the largest Columbus Day celebration in the world.
Italian American activists protested that Christopher Columbus Day was removed from the New York City school schedule. They replaced it with "Indigenous People's Day".
Mayor Bill de Blasio stated that he supports the compromise.
De Blasio stated, "We must honor that day as an opportunity to recognize all Italian Americans' contributions. So of course the day shouldn't have been altered arbitrarily."
Chicago's annual Columbus Day parade returns to Chicago Monday, after the pandemic that decimated the event in 2020 saw 20,000 people cancel it. It is a stark reminder of the ongoing struggle over three Columbus statues, which are still stored by the city in the aftermath of protests targeting them in summer 2020.
Lori Lightfoot, Mayor of Toronto in July 2020, ordered the removal of the statues and stated that demonstrations were threatening police and protesters.
Later, she created a committee to examine monuments in the city. This included the fate of Columbus monuments. Although no plans were made public, the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, which plans the Columbus Day parade, sued the city's parks district and demanded that it be restored.
Ron Onesti, president of the organization, stated that the parade draws protesters every year and expects this to happen again on Monday. The holiday, parade, and statues are meant to be a celebration of the contributions of Italian Americans to the U.S., and not just Columbus.
Onesti stated Saturday that he was looking for a result "for" our traditions to be honored and for conversations to continue. "Every plaque that is attached to a statue acknowledges the contributions of the Italian community. People need to be able to comprehend why the plaque is there. Then let's get down to work and see where we can go.
In 2017, Illinois designated the last Monday of September as Indigenous Peoples Day, but retained Columbus Day on Monday the 2nd Monday of October. This year, no action was taken on a proposal to replace Columbus Day.
Chicago Public Schools voted in 2020 to replace Columbus Day by Indigenous Peoples Day. This prompted outrage from many aldermen and Italian American groups. Columbus Day is still listed on the city's holiday schedule.
Begay, an advocate for Indigenous Peoples Day, stated that the group decided to concentrate on Columbus Day in Cook County first, hoping it would be easier than convincing Chicago or the state officials. However, the proposal has not been supported by the county board.
Begay asked, "Why are these 500+ years still forgotten?" "Why don’t we have one day to remember these atrocities against native people?"