October 10, 2014

Renaming Columbus Day angers Italian Americans

On the Columbus Day front this year, Minneapolis and Seattle passed resolutions to change the name:

Inaccurate, controversial history of Columbus leads to alternative celebrations in North Dakota

By Garrett Richie“We don’t necessarily talk about Columbus Day,” Braun said. “We talk about Columbus and the complexity and the history that Columbus in fact did not discover North America. Mostly, we talk about the larger issues of what happened as Europeans settled in North America and the consequences of that.”

As far as the holiday is concerned, it originally came about as a way for Italian Americans to celebrate their heritage during a time when they were still being discriminated against in the U.S. in the late 19th century. However, as Italian Americans began to blend into the general white population in the U.S., the holiday became a more national event, and the focus shifted.

“The irony is that this holiday that started out as a celebration of a significant ethnic heritage against some kind of discrimination has become something that another ethnic group finds oppressive to them,” Braun said.

With this in mind, some towns and groups have tried to find ways to reconsider Columbus by either renaming the holiday or creating a celebration that recognizes Native Americans. This year, the Brainerd, Minn., city council proposed (but eventually tabled) a motion to replace Columbus Day with Chief Red Wing Day, and Minneapolis designated Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day.
Later articles addressed this change. In particular, Italian Americans weren't happy about the slight to their hero:

Seattle council faces backlash from Italian-American group

Italian-American activists say they’re forming a political-action committee to oppose local politicians who supported designating Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

By Daniel Beekman
Some Italian-American activists in Seattle say they’re forming a political-action committee to strike back at members of the City Council who voted unanimously Monday to recognize an Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same date as Columbus Day.

They say the council members disrespected Seattle’s 25,000 Italian-American residents when they picked Columbus Day rather than another date.

Some Native-American activists, backed by the Seattle Human Rights Commission and more than 30 other organizations, had asked for an Indigenous Peoples’ Day on that date to recall the harm inflicted on their ancestors by Europeans such as Christopher Columbus.

“We empathize with the death and destruction of the Native Americans,” activist Ralph Fascitelli said Thursday during a news conference at Il Terrazzo Carmine, an Italian restaurant in Pioneer Square. “But we think right now this is almost going too far in terms of political correctness.”

They claim the holiday has nothing to with Columbus, but instead celebrates immigration:

Columbus Day changes run aground due to lack of interest, resources; Shared Vision tables issue of honoring American Indians around holiday

By Zach KayserThe idea is spreading beyond Minnesota, too: on Oct. 6, city leaders in Seattle also voted to change the holiday. However, the move drew criticism from Seattle's Italian-American community, news agency Reuters reported.

"Italians are intensely offended," Seattle resident Lisa Marchese told the City Council. "For decades, Italian-Americans celebrated not the man, but the symbol of Columbus Day. That symbol means we honor the legacy of our ancestors who immigrated to Seattle, overcame poverty, a language barrier, and above all, discrimination."

However, the argument for changing the name centers around the link between the holiday and Columbus' legacy. Honoring him as the man who "discovered" America is perceived as paying short shrift to the millions of American Indians who lived here for generations before his arrival. Symbolism aside, there's also a more literal aspect: the acts of aggression on the part of Columbus' expeditions.

Anton Treuer, director of BSU's American Indian Resource Center, said the full extent of atrocities committed by Columbus remains widely unacknowledged.
Alas, the facts don't support their claims:

Redface in America

By Robin Annette LaDueThere have been people of Italian descent who claim that their ethnicity is being disrespected by changing the name from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Their statements are that Columbus Day is really Italian Heritage Day. However, their arguments do not adhere to the facts of the matter. Columbus Day, was, in fact, first put forth under President Harrison. A more likely use of Columbus Day was that:

“During the four hundredth anniversary in 1892, teachers, preachers, poets and politicians used Columbus Day rituals to teach ideals of patriotism. These patriotic rituals were framed around themes such as support for war, citizenship boundaries, the importance of loyalty to the nation, and celebrating social progress.”

Nowhere was it suggested in the process of making Columbus Day a federal holiday that it was in honor of Italian heritage. This does not mean that this holiday is not of great significance to people of Italian descent. It is simply not a reality that changing the name is meant to dishonor people of Italian descent. To frame the long overdue decision to recognize Native people as being disrespectful of Italian people is part of ignoring the reality of the grief so many Native people still deal with on a daily basis due to the loss of land, language, children, culture, and life that began with the landing of Columbus. These are not realities that should be celebrated.

A fact that appears to be lost in this discussion is what the immigration of people of Italian descent and other Europeans meant for Native people of the Americas. For every person who immigrated, another Indigenous person was displaced. The pain of this displacement is almost impossible to express. In effect, when politicians and others tell Native people to go home, it would be to the backyards of such people.

You don't have to dig far to see what Italian Americans are really celebrating. It's the same thing other Americans celebrate: their own "greatness."

Columbus gets his comeuppance: Why his holiday is in deep jeopardy

Mascot for violent European colonialism has been celebrated for years. These major U.S. cities are saying "no more"

By J.P. Lawrence
Some Italian-Americans and others object to the name change, deeming it political correctness. If Columbus Day needs a name change, they say, so does the District of Columbia; Columbus, Ohio; and Columbia University.

Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa, founder and president of the Italian American Museum in New York City’s Little Italy, said Columbus represents the courage shown by immigrants, such as his ancestors, when they came to America.

“If it weren’t for this courageous European who came to these shores, 99% of us would not be here today. He must be seen in the context of his time, not ours,” he said. “What he did was bring Christian civilization to the Western World, and the benefits of that outweigh any disadvantages.”

Scelsa, who holds a doctorate in Sociology and Education from Columbia University, disputed claims Columbus directly killed anyone, while the “Incas practiced blood sacrifice and committed genocide.”

“I believe it is a travesty of justice to dishonor this courageous man who gave so much for this country, and I totally disagree with it,” Scelsa said. “There are many other ways to celebrate Native Americans, and we should, but not at the expense of Columbus.”
Comment:  So apparently it is all about the man and his individual accomplishments after all.

The benefits of "Christian civilization" outweigh any disadvantages? Many American Indians and African Americans would disagree.

And now we're at the crux of the conflict. Italian Americans and other white Americans think they're the center of the universe. They think it's more important to celebrate and honor them than it is to acknowledge the death and destruction of Native cultures. The message is that white peoples' feelings are more important than Native peoples' lives.

It's more than understandable why Natives and their liberal allies don't accept this message. Because it's immoral and un-Christian to celebrate conquest. Killing and enslaving people isn't "civilization," it's barbarism.

The final word is my tweet on the subject:

Mussolini's death toll was 300,000. Columbus's toll was similar. Let's replace Columbus Day with Mussolini Day to honor Italians' heritage.

For more on Columbus, see King Touts "Values Columbus Brought" and Columbus Day Celebrates White Superiority.

Below:  A present-day reminder of what Columbus means to most Americans.

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