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Columbus Day: An Evolution of Inclusion

This October holiday brings with it the challenges of celebrating a man that is revered by some and reviled by others.  In 1792, Italian and Catholic communities in New York organized a celebration to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery of America.”  As the commemoration grew from a local celebration into a national celebration into a national holiday, many cities re-purposed the holiday, forming alternative celebrations such as “Indigenous People’s Day” or “Native American Day,” as a remembrance of the Native Americans who were enslaved, tortured and/or killed by Columbus.  While Italian Americans continue to argue for the day as a celebration of an Italian hero, groups advocating for the rights of Native Americans argue that celebrating Columbus defiles the legacy of the lives he destroyed.  So, who is right?  Should we keep Columbus Day or replace it with Native American Day?

As the dialogue (okay, it is has devolved into more of an argument) continues, it is important to remember why the Italian Americans in New York fought so hard to have a parade in Columbus’ honor in 1792.  During this period, American sentiment against Italian immigrants and Catholics was very negative. Italian immigrants were discriminated against, ostracized and victimized in their workplaces and in their neighborhoods for being Catholic, having “dark complexions” and taking jobs away from “real Americans.”  For an early Italian immigrant, celebrating Christopher Columbus was about reclaiming their Italian heritage and the pride of connecting that heritage directly to America’s roots.

Columbus Day was created as a way for people to be included and respected, and it is being challenged as a holiday that excludes and disrespects the people who lived on this land before Columbus arrived.  Can these perspectives co-exist with one another?  If not, whose perspective, whose experience, is more important, more correct, more real? If only one perspective is right, who wins?

Asking the questions does not necessarily mean that we will find the answers, but if we stop asking the questions, we stop growing.