Joe Biden became the first president in the history of the United States to officially recognize and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, which takes place this second Monday in October, which is officially the national holiday of Columbus Day. The historical character has recently been associated with atrocities caused during the European conquest of America. The city of Boston, also for the first time, decided to erase the figure of the explorer from this date and dedicate itself fully to the native peoples. New York’s public schools debut this year the designation of Italian Legacy Day/Indigenous Peoples Day, saying goodbye to the adventurer. And in Philadelphia, after a court dispute that lasted until Saturday, the traditional parade will end in front of a statue of the Genoese, but surrounded by wood to the top.
Controversy over the Columbus Day commemoration, tributes and monuments to the navigator has been around for a few years in the United States, but it gained momentum after the great mobilization against racism in mid-2020, as a result of the death of African-American George Floyd. In a country plunged into a national catharsis about its slavery past and the oppression of minorities, which is revising all its symbols and removing the Confederate statues (the slavery wing that was defeated in the 19th century Civil War), it is difficult for colonization European pass unnoticed. And Christopher Columbus, although he has never set foot on the present territory of the United States, occupies a prominent place in the dock as a symbol of colonization, its glory and its miseries.
For Roberto Múkaro Borrero, president of the Confederation of the Taibo People (the first tribe that Columbus encountered, in the Bahamas), the explorer “is not someone who should be honored with taxpayer money at a national party. This is a date built on the basis of mythology and racism, and the fact that more and more cities celebrate indigenous peoples is an indication of this need for change”. “It is a symbol of supremacy and slavery,” he added.
More than a dozen states – from Michigan to Wisconsin, passing through the District of Columbia, where Washington is, and whose name alludes to the Genoese –, in addition to a hundred cities, already celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, in a movement that has been taking place bit by bit over the past half decade, as statues of the navigator have been falling from their pedestals across the country, not without opposition.
The policy change in New York schools, decided in May, provoked angry criticism from the then governor of the state, Andrew Cuomo, of Italian origin. In Boston, Italian-American organizations also criticized the lack of prior debate. A New Jersey school district, which voted to remove the reference to Colombo, has just backed away from the decision this year.
This conflict, unlike what happens with the Confederate sculptures, does not attract a Democratic Party consensus, not only because of the obvious historical differences between the characters, but because the tribute to Columbus emerged in the United States as a way to honor Italian immigrants and Catholics, at a time when they were part of an especially battered community, victims of xenophobic crimes. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decreed in 1934 that October 12, the date of Columbus’s arrival in America in 1492, would be a national holiday, and since 1971 it has been celebrated on the second Monday of October, the month that recognizes the Italian-American legacy.
That Biden issued two different presidential proclamations, the new one referring to indigenous peoples and the traditional one dedicated to Columbus, shows the need for political balance. In the text referring to the Columbus Day, however, the president also recognizes “the painful history of injustices and atrocities that many European exploiters inflicted on tribal nations and indigenous communities”. In the case of Indigenous Peoples, he pointed to internal faults: “For generations, federal policies have systematically tried to assimilate and displace native peoples and eradicate native cultures”, he lamented.
Spain, the country that Columbus served, feels this controversy, of course, as its own affair. The Spanish Embassy in Washington claims to have the defense of the Spanish legacy in the Americas as “one of its priorities”, and that is why it has launched several actions to protect its image, not only with regard to Colombo. For example, it reacted to the demolition of the statue of Friar Junípero de Serra in San Francisco last year and created educational projects such as the Guide to Spain in Washington, about the Spanish monuments and symbols in this city – including a statue of the Genoese sailor that survives in the small square in front of the train station.
The battle has also recently resurfaced after criticism from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has questioned Spain for not asking for forgiveness for the outrages of the conquest, which was answered ironically by former Spanish Conservative Prime Minister José María Aznar.
Joe Biden’s White House has so far opted for a Solomonic solution: to celebrate the two ideas, in line with what Andrew Cuomo said. “You can celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day without messing with Columbus’s. Why insult or disdain the Italian contribution?”. In Boston, Heather Leavell, co-founder of the movement entitled Italo-Americans in Favor of Indigenous Day, points out, however, that “the Italian legacy does not need to be celebrated precisely on this second Monday in October. The Italian-American culture enjoys a recognition that indigenous peoples lack, so we must prioritize their feelings in this”.
The shift in sensitivity towards historical figures seems inexorable in the United States. Newark, the largest city in the state of New Jersey, with nearly 300,000 inhabitants, this year unveiled the design of a new monument in honor of Harriet Tubman, the slave-born abolitionist heroine who freed dozens of blacks. In 2020, local authorities had removed another statue of Columbus.
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