Celebration Controversy–To Observe Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day?

People can’t seem to agree on anything these days, including what they were to celebrate on October 11, 2021. My calendar designated that day as “Indigenous People’s Day/Christopher Columbus Day.” In digenous People are referenced first because, of course, they were here first. Unfortunately, you cannot celebrate both occasions; it’s like trying to mix oil and water. Indigenous People believe Christopher Columbus did them wrong, so if someone honors Columbus, they’re basically thumbing their noses at the Indigenous People. You can’t be Switzerland; you must choose a side with whom to celebrate.

Indigenous People’s Day is actually the newest U.S. holiday. On October 8, 2021, President Biden signed a presidential proclamation formally recognizing it and declaring it a national holiday. Of course, that didn’t leave his countrymen much time to prepare for that event. Three days’ notice? But forget preparing. First you have to figure out the appropriate thing to do on such a holiday. The newspaper in my area was bereft of information about how you could observe the event.

The purpose for Indigenous People’s Day is to celebrate and honor Native American peoples and their histories and cultures. As President Biden’s proclamation noted, “On Indigenous People’s Day, we honor America’s first inhabitants and the Tribal Nations that continue to thrive today.” So, literally, Indigenous People can truly say, “We’re #1” since they were the first ones here, not that Johnny-come-lately, Christopher Columbus.

Biden’s proclamation earlier this month was the first time a U.S. president has officially recognized Indigenous People’s Day. Nevertheless, the day has been recognized and celebrated for several years. The impetus for it came from an international conference on discrimination that the United Nations sponsored in 1977. Berkeley, California instituted Indigenous People’s Day in 1992, the year marking the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. Remember learning in school, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”?

Marking Indigenous People’s Day on the same day as Columbus Day arose as a counter-celebration to honoring the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. Although hailed as an explorer and discoverer by history books, he has been denounced by some, including Native Americans, as representing the violent history of colonization of the New World in the Western Hemisphere. South Dakota, in fact, went so far as to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in 1989.

But those opposed to celebrating Columbus Day probably have no idea of the history behind how that holiday came into existence. Ironically, both Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day arose from the mistreatment of minorities. Although named for Christopher Columbus, the day wasn’t so much about him as it was about Italian Americans.

Back in 1892, on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage (still counting from the sailing of the ocean blue in 1492), President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day a one-time national celebration. The impetus for this announcement? Why, the lynching in New Orleans of 11 Italian immigrants. The president’s proclamation was seen as a means to appease Italian Americans and to ease tensions with Italy.

Fast forward to 1934 when the Knights of Columbus and a New York City Italian leader lobbied for a national proclamation of October 12th as Columbus Day. Nevertheless, it took until 1971 before the day became a recognized federal holiday. Many Italian Americans observe Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage as opposed to idolizing or glorifying Christopher Columbus.

While Biden’s proclamation formalized the new holiday of Indigenous People’s Day, it gave no guidelines or even suggestions for observing it. How should you appreciate those the day seeks to honor? One way to do so is to learn more about the honorees. With the internet, that activity is literally right at your fingertips. You can go to http://www.sacredspaceonlinelearning.com/ssol-categories/native-american-first-nations-and-indigenous-peoples-nafni/ to check out public online resources and webinars offered by NAFNI (Native American, First Nations and Indigenous People) to bring awareness to their ways of life and traditions.

A second way to actively enjoy the day would be to make and enjoy some Native American food. Indigenous recipes can be found at https://www.powwows.com/25-favorite-native-american-recipes/. Three Sisters Soup sounds delicious and highlights the prevalence of three ingredients in the native diet: corn, beans, and squash. Fry Bread is a familiar food of Native Americans, but making it the traditional way fried in lard may not be the healthiest choice.

Columbus Day can certainly be celebrated as a tip of the hat to Italian Americans. Columbus was, undisputedly, a famous Italian who had an impact on America. His explorations are a part of history and need to be recognized. BUT, perhaps a better way to treat the holiday is to learn ALL of the story about his discovery of the New World, including, and especially, his treatment of the Indigenous People he encountered there. While history cannot be changed, our perspective of it might if we consider the entire story. Perhaps everyone could learn from the mistakes made in the past when it comes to human relations.

As for me, I prefer not to have to choose between the two holidays. I suggest we “accentuate the positive” and honor BOTH Indigenous People and Italian Americans. Nevertheless, I have a confession to make. I didn’t have the day off, so it was a day like all days to me. No celebrating or honoring was done–just working. I’ll do better next year and recognize these two groups, of which I belong to neither. Isn’t that what makes America great though? We are not all the same. By the way, you can kiss me because I’m Irish. You don’t even have to wait until St. Patrick’s Day, which isn’t a federal holiday….

WONDER-ing Woman:

Did you celebrate either Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day this week? If so, how? Were you aware of how Columbus Day initially came to be recognized? Is it possible to honor both Italian American heritage and Indigenous People at the same time?

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