A movement to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day has gained momentum in some parts of the U.S., with Los Angeles in August becoming the biggest city yet to decide to stop honoring the Italian explorer and instead recognize victims of colonialism.
Earier this month, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors joined the city, declaring that no later than 2019, the second Monday in October will be observed as Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day in Los Angeles County.
The motion, which makes Indigenous Peoples Day an official county holiday, also designates Oct. 12 as Italian American Heritage Day.
“The motion, let me be clear, is not about erasing history,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis, who introduced it with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “This is about understanding that for centuries, America’s ancestors oppressed certain groups of people. And while we can’t change the past, we can acknowledge and make that history right today.”
But such gestures to recognize indigenous people rather than the man who opened the Americas to European domination has also prompted howls of outrage from some Italian Americans, who say eliminating their festival of ethnic pride is culturally insensitive, too.
“We had a very difficult time in this country for well over a hundred years,” said Basil Russo, president of the Order Italian Sons and Daughters of America. “Columbus Day is a day that we’ve chosen to celebrate who we are. And we’re entitled to do that just as they are entitled to celebrate who they are.”
It’s not about taking anything away from Italian Americans, said Cliff Matias, cultural director of the Redhawk Native American Arts Council, which is hosting a “Re-Thinking Columbus Day” event Sunday and Monday in New York City.
“The conversation is Columbus,” he said. “If they’re going to celebrate Columbus, we need to celebrate the fact that we survived Columbus.”
The debate over Columbus’ historical legacy is an old one, but it became emotionally charged after a similar debate in the South over monuments to Confederate generals flared into deadly violence in August at a rally in Charlottesville, Va.
In Akron, Ohio, a September vote over whether to dump Columbus opened a racial rift on the city council that was so heated, conflict mediators were brought in to sooth tensions.
In New York City, where 35,000 people are expected to march in Monday’s Columbus Day parade, vandals last month doused the hands of a Christopher Columbus statue in blood-red paint and scrawled the words “hate will not be tolerated.”