Columbus Day? Indigenous Peoples Day? What is Monday’s holiday all about?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — November 25: Part of a mile marker with handmade signs from protesters opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Thomas Simonetti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Mandy van Heuvelen is 36 years old, and, until she came to D.C. 11 years ago, she’d never experienced Columbus Day.

The cultural interpreter coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian, van Heuvelen grew up in South Dakota, the first state to change the holiday to Native American Heritage Day, in 1990.

“I don’t quite understand the celebration of what Columbus Day is, or is supposed to be, because I haven’t really experienced it in any real sense. It actually wasn’t until I moved here that I was really in a place that referred to the holiday as Columbus Day and not Native American Heritage Day,” van Heuvelen said.

The question of what exactly we’re celebrating Monday has gotten more attention in recent years, but it has been going on for decades.

Columbus Day, which was first celebrated in San Francisco in 1868 and became a federal holiday in 1971, is intended to honor the supposed discoverer of America, but the elevation of Columbus has always had problems.

Several recent histories document, often with the help of his own journals, the atrocities he committed against the people he encountered, including slavery, exploitation and sexual abuse of natives. That’s led to protests against the holiday, and even the vandalization of Columbus statues across the country, including the one in Baltimore.

Instead of Columbus Day, about 15 states use the second Monday in October as a celebration of Native American history and heritage.

D.C. is among the dozens of cities no longer celebrating Columbus Day; even Columbus, Ohio, doesn’t call it Columbus Day anymore. Virginia observed Columbus Day until Friday, when Gov, Ralph Northam declared that Monday would be Indigenous Peoples Day. Maryland still observes Columbus Day — although Montgomery County and Prince George’s County have declared they’ll be celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day.

“It’s really exciting that cities and states are acknowledging the history of Indigenous peoples with this holiday and making that transition and change,” van Heuvelen said.

The profile of Native American activism has been raised in recent years, van Heuvelen said, in the disputes over Native American sports mascots and imagery, as well as depictions in popular culture and the long-standing battle over the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline.

“Those kinds of conversations have really been pushed forward in recent years, to changing what students learn in classrooms and reflecting a more accurate history,” she said.

And the gradual change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day is an important part, “adding to people’s awareness of our history as a nation and Indigenous people and the issues that they’re facing today,” van Neuvelen said.

Young Native people, with energy and their access to social media, have come to the forefront of the movement in recent years.

“The generations that came before us certainly paved the way,” van Heuvelen said, “but the fact that Indigenous youth are continuing those fights and leading the way today, I think, is really inspiring.”

The atrocities Columbus committed likely comprise the main problem with celebrating a Columbus Day holiday, but not the only one: Born in Italy, the explorer’s name there was in fact Cristoforo Colombo in Italy, and there are a number of variations on that in other languages and dialects, but was never actually called “Christopher Columbus” to his face.

And of course, he never actually set foot in what is now the United States; he landed in several Caribbean Islands and part of South America in his four voyages.

He did find that if you sail west from Europe, you hit something before you get to Asia, but of course he didn’t even realize that — that’s why he called the natives he ran into “Indians.”

So how did this holiday come about? Guess what — that’s complex too.

‘It’s never been any one thing’

The Columbus Day holiday is popularly thought of as a celebration of Italian American history and culture (even though that’s never been officially considered part of the holiday’s reason for being). Many prominent Italian Americans have defended the holiday, and still do. But even in the Italian American community, the day is controversial, and pretty much always has been.

Laura Ruberto, a professor in the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at Berkeley City College, and Joseph Sciorra, director at Queens College’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, have written extensively on the history surrounding Columbus Day.

Protesters in Baltimore toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus and threw it into the Inner Harbor in July. (WBAL via CNN)

On one hand, change is difficult, Ruberto told WTOP, because there’s “a real emotional attachment to this concept of Columbus, and so the argument is often ‘Why is my emotion worse, worth less than another group?’ … How can we kind of ask someone to, you know, feel differently, right? It’s a difficult question to ask someone.”

“Columbus Day, and Columbus monuments … it’s never been any one thing,” Sciorra said. “He’s been assembled for many different people now, and meaning different things. And even at any one moment, he’s had different meanings for different people.”

It wasn’t Italian Americans who started the idea that Columbus discovered this country — as Sciorra and Ruberto wrote in 2017, this interpretation predates any major influx of Italian immigrants, starting with a poetic celebration by Washington Irving in 1828.

Scholars have written that the country was looking for an origin story that didn’t involve England, and Sciorra and Ruberto say that Columbus served as “a symbol of individualistic resolve and ultimately of Manifest Destiny” (the belief that the U.S. had the right, in fact was destined, to take over the continent).

But as the 19th century turned into the 20th, things had changed. “The proliferation of Columbus representations to a large degree occurred in a different context,” they write; “namely, the arrival and fraught assimilation of more than four million Italian immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century.”

The recognition of Italian American immigrants and culture was happening side by side with some of the most violent oppression.

Eleven Italian Americans were lynched in New Orleans in 1891, while New York City’s iconic Columbus Monument went up the next year. (It’s tempting to see the latter as a reaction to the former, but Ruberto and Sciorra point out that monument was long in the planning.)

So the Italian American community looked for a way to prove their American-Ness, and the myth of Columbus was it. “Italian Americans built their emerging identity as provisional whites out of this hagiography,” Ruberto and Sciorra write.

Ruberto explained, “This makes this really important jump to suggest that a 19th-century Italian immigrant was actually more crucial, more central and more foundational to the foundation of the United States than the pilgrims, than the framers of the Constitution.”

“Really strong debates around Columbus coming from multiple perspectives” began in the 1970s, Ruberto said, led by the Native American community; in the early 1990s, some Italian American voices joined the chorus.

CLICK TO EXPAND: City crews inspect the straps that are around the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park as they begin to remove it, Friday, July 24, 2020, in Chicago. The statue of Christopher Columbus that drew chaotic protests in Chicago was taken down early Friday amid a plan by President Donald Trump to dispatch federal agents to the city. (Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

“It’s a voice within the Italian American community that’s often squelched, that nobody listens to — certainly mass media doesn’t really represent an anti-Columbus position from within the American community.”

“Those who are of the pro-Columbus position have positioned themselves as spokespeople for all Italian Americans,” Sciorra said, “and they’ve also cast themselves and all of Italian Americans as victims.”

But there’s a growing movement among Italian Americans who see the bigger picture of American history and whiteness, “And they see that as a way to decouple Italian Americans from this mythical historic figure of Columbus,” Sciorra said.

They tend to include more women, as well as younger people and gay, lesbian and trans Italian Americans, Ruberto said, and they identify more with minority groups than the mostly male defenders of the Columbus myth.

This movement has led to changes in celebrations in such heavily Italian areas as Staten Island, New York, which will celebrate Italian American Heritage Day on Monday. (San Francisco celebrates both cultures.)

Across the country, the professors said, cities and towns are changing the names of Columbus-centric parks to honor local Italian American heroes.

Among the young

A youth movement is at the center of Monday’s celebrations at the National Museum of the American Indian, van Heuvelen said.

“We’re inviting Indigenous youth from throughout the U.S. and other parts of the Western Hemisphere, to talk about the work that is important to them and the work that they’re doing in their communities. What do they want Indigenous Peoples Day to be?”

She added, “It’s just so inspiring to … hear their perspectives and the ways that the history of Columbus Day and the history of the use of mascots and imagery has really impacted them and inspired them to take action.”

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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