On March 2, 2021, the people of Wellesley will be asked to approve a motion that the Select Board cease to recognize Columbus Day and re-designate the day as Indigenous People’s Day. This proposal is both misleading and historically in error as well as unnecessary.
The Columbus Day holiday is tied to Italian-Americans and Italian immigration. By the time Columbus Day became an official holiday in 1968 it was quite clear that Columbus had not “discovered” the Americas and that the Norse were here 500 years before Columbus. Moreover, in his four voyages to the Americas, Columbus never set foot on the land that was to become the US.
Columbus represented both pride in Italian ancestry as well as pride in the contribution of Italian-Americans to the US. In fact, the first “Columbus Day” holiday was declared by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 in response to the lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans. At that time the holiday focused on citizenship and nationhood with dual intent;
first, to give Italian-Americans pride in being US citizens and, second, to reinforce among existing citizens the contribution of Italian-Americans to the US nation.
Columbus Day is not the only day of ethnic celebration in the US. St Patrick’s Day has been celebrated in the US since 1601 and is marked with festivities in cities like Boston and New York that have large Irish-American communities. More recently, Cinco de Mayo and Hispanic culture have been celebrated.
October 12 is the date of the holiday because this is the day that Columbus’s fleet sighted the Americas. The date marks an historic event.
The motion seeks to change the designation of this day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Yet, by a national law from 2009, the day after Thanksgiving is designated “Native American Heritage Day”, clearly intended to serve the purpose as Indigenous Peoples Day. Moreover, since 1994, the entire month of November has been designated by Presidential Proclamation as “Native American Heritage Month”, in the same way that February is designated “Black History Month”.
Since there already is a day and month for the celebration of native Americans and indigenous peoples the motive for this proposal is something quite different from celebration. Rather, the purpose here is quite the opposite for in the view of the proposal’s supporters and as the proposal reads this day marks the start of the “…suffering [Indigenous Peoples] faced during and after the European conquest…”
As a mailer from the proponents of the proposal elaborates: “Columbus brought a culture of domination, exploitation, violence, and greed that resulted in genocide, oppression, and destruction of Indigenous cultures and ecosystems.”
In other words, this proposal demands that as a descendant of European immigrants or for that matter any immigrant you acknowledge on this day your guilt in and responsibility for all the depredations and horrors suffered by Indigenous Peoples as a result of the European discovery of and immigration to the Americas.
None of this is to say that what befell the Indigenous Peoples from European exploration and American expansion was not horrific. Our history, indeed, history generally, has no shortage of ugly events. The consequences, intended and unintended, of the migration of peoples and globalization are often both unexpected and detrimental. If we are to make the US a better nation and to realize the aspirations of our founding, it is beholden upon all citizens to understand our history both good and bad.
But this proposal does not seek to make us better. Instead it asserts that there is an irredeemable flaw in us and in the US that can never be made good. Columbus and the Europeans came; we cannot undo this history. We should understand and celebrate Native American culture just as we celebrate that of immigrants. We should recognize that we are stronger and culturally richer for our diversity. Defining the US as irredeemably flawed by immigration does not bring greater understanding it only demeans most citizens. I ask that you join in rejecting this proposal.