raceAhead: The Growth of Indigenous People’s Day
In ways large and small, the country has begun to re-think the second Monday in October, wondering collectively whether a holiday devoted to Christopher Columbus reflects the country we are or want to become.
In August, Los Angeles became the biggest city to date to cease celebrating the Italian explorer and instead honor the indigenous people whose lives were destroyed by the enslavement, colonialism, and plunder that Columbus is now understood to have unleashed.
Los Angeles Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, a member of the Wyandotte Native American tribe told CNN that it matters. “Christopher Columbus’ legacy of extreme violence, enslavement and brutality is not in dispute,” he said. “Nor is the suffering, destruction of cultures and subjugation of Los Angeles’ original indigenous people, who were here thousands of years before anyone else.”
San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver and Austin, Texas are all celebrating Indigenous People’s Day in some form, and at least 16 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, don’t acknowledge Columbus Day as a public holiday.
The conversation isn’t without some pain. Many Italian American groups see the holiday as a way to celebrate their own survival as immigrants, not the erasure of someone else’s pain. “We had a very difficult time in this country for well over a hundred years,” Basil Russo of the Order of Italian Sons and Daughters of America told The Associated Press. “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.”
But when compared to the violence, vitriol, and Tiki Torches that have characterized the recent Confederate monument debate, the Columbus Day controversy feels relatively manageable – even when it gets heated. Particularly if you’re willing to overlook the ways indigenous communities in North America have been unable to find even the most basic relief from the legacy of their treatment: Abandoned by the economic system, surrounded by abject poverty, environmental toxins, and gender violence, while parodied as mascots owned by millionaires. Christopher Columbus offers an easy on-ramp into a conversation that is long overdue.
I expect in part it’s because the issue hasn’t been utterly inflamed by alt-right message makers who may not be prepared to make room in their tiny tent for descendants of Columbus.
I’d like to believe that it’s because, in part, there is no defense for Columbus did or what ultimately happened to the people who, as the bitter joke goes, discovered him standing on their beach.
But as Indigenous People’s Day becomes more popular, these small victories seem like a reminder of something that feels increasingly hard to believe these days: We can talk about hard things and survive it. We can think about the past with compassion for others and ourselves. And nobody has to disappear.
And don’t forget! Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit starts this afternoon! Follow live here.
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