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Opinion: Are you celebrating Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day?

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio takes part in the city's annual Columbus Day parade on Monday.
(Spencer Platt / AFP/Getty Images)
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Happy Columbus Day – or Happy Indigenous Peoples Day if you live in one of the growing number of localities that have renamed the holiday to honor the people who lived in America before Columbus showed up, and their descendants.

Berkeley, it won’t surprise you, was apparently the first city to make the switch. This year Seattle and Minneapolis join the parade.

The shift in emphasis offends a lot of Italian Americans, for whom Columbus Day long has been a spur to ethnic pride. In my native city of Pittsburgh, a revered Italian American state Supreme Court justice named Michael Musmanno was obsessed with debunking the story that Columbus was preceded to North America by Leif Erikson.

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It never would have occurred to either Italian Americans or Scandinavian Americans in the late Musmanno’s time that the notion of the “discovery” of America – by either Italians or Vikings – was offensive. Now we know better: Columbus “discovered” a land that was already occupied and proceeded to brutalize the original occupants.

In a more lighthearted vein, John Oliver said that Columbus’ arrival began “a long tradition of white people visiting a Caribbean island and acting like they owned the place.”

Oliver may have been joking, but the idea that whites “stole” the Americas from their rightful inhabitants is a common theme in anti-Columbus Day invective.

A related concept is that the descendants of the original Americans are also indigenous people. The Seattle City Council renamed the holiday to honor “the thriving cultures and values of Indigenous Peoples in our region,” while Minneapolis called for reflection on the “ongoing struggles of indigenous people on this land.”

The notion that some people born in this country are “indigenous” and others aren’t is bizarre, especially coming from political progressives. In other contexts, they oppose the idea – propagated by Daughters of the American Revolution types – that someone is more of an American because his ancestors came over on the Mayflower instead of in steerage two centuries later. Nor do they believe that recent immigrants should “self-deport.”

Finally, there is the scientific objection to “Indigenous Peoples Day.” According to evolutionary biologists, our often-cruel species evolved in Africa and then slow-footed it to Europe, Asia and eventually the Americas, where Columbus indeed “discovered” his own distant cousins. Except for Africans living in Africa, we’re all the offspring of colonists or invaders -- and none of us is indigenous.

But enjoy the day anyway.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3


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