raceAhead: Happy Indigenous Peoples’ 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.
Last year, Los Angeles became the biggest city to date to stop celebrating the Italian explorer, and instead honor the indigenous people whose lives were destroyed by the enslavement, violence, colonialism, and plunder that Columbus is now understood to have unleashed.
This year, Columbus, Ohio, named for the explorer himself, finally pulled the plug. It canceled its own Columbus Day celebration, held in an 88-acre Disney Epcot-like park that was built in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his famous voyage. Even then, the opening of the park drew sharp protests from indigenous activists.
But instead of citing politics or the growing movement to embrace Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the mayor’s office said budget was to blame; the city doesn’t have funds to give 8,500 employees the day off for two federal holidays. “We chose to close on Veterans Day instead of Columbus Day to honor those who have served our country,” a spokesperson told The Washington Post.
Whatever gets you there.
More than a dozen U.S. cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, Cincinnati and Austin, Texas, and at least 16 states, including Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont, Oregon, and Hawaii, have all abandoned Columbus Day events to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in some form. “Columbus Day is a relic of an outdated and oversimplified version of history,” Joe Cutatone, the mayor of Somerville, Mass, wrote when announcing the decision last month.
Not everyone is happy about the switch. 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 Cutatone says it’s not the only way to celebrate. “This issue is a lot like the Confederate flag for southerners,” he told CNN. “As an Italian-American it feels good that there is an official holiday that is nominally about us. Yet the specifics of this holiday run so deep into human suffering that we need to shift our pride elsewhere.”
The debate is measured and heartfelt and effective—particularly if you’re willing to overlook the ways many indigenous communities in North America have yet to find even the most basic relief from the legacy of their treatment: Abandoned by the economic system, beset by poverty, environmental toxins, and violence, while parodied as mascots of teams owned by millionaires.
Sure, there is plenty of work yet to do, but it all feels like a step in the right direction.
Maybe it’s because the issue hasn’t been inflamed by alt-right message makers who may not be prepared to make room in their tiny tent for descendants of Columbus.
But I’d really like to believe that it’s also because there is no defense for what Columbus did or what ultimately happened to the people who, as the bitter joke goes, discovered him standing on their beach.
The debate about Columbus Day seems like a vision of ourselves that feels increasingly unfamiliar 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.
This column is an updated version of a similar one from last year.
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The Woke Leader
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