Today is Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day, Native American Day, or Native American Remembrance Day depending on whom you ask.
South Dakota is the only state that celebrates Native American Day on Columbus Day, as “a time to recognize the resiliency and the contributions of native peoples.” It is also a time to remember all the loss that accompanied that resilience.
In NYC and elsewhere across the country, many people of Italian heritage celebrate their culture and achievements today (full disclosure: I have Italian ancestry, through my mom, whose family in Crete has roots in Venice).
And thus, the tension: is it a day to celebrate or to mourn?
Of course, people of Italian ancestry should enjoy and celebrate their (our) heritage, as every other immigrant group does in the USA, particularly this group that can remember its own very recent history of facing broad discrimination and exclusion (as many Southern Europeans did), and that still can face discrimination and negative stereotypes.
Yet, we don’t want to insult the descendants of Indigenous Americans (Native Americans) by glorifying someone who has a mixed legacy and whose arrival on these shores led to colonization, expropriation, and some say even genocide. I have a friend with Native ancestry who says that celebrating Columbus Day feels like celebrating the Holocaust (I would say Shoah, or “Calamity,” rather than “Holocaust” or Holy Sacrifice—there was nothing godly or sacrificial about what the Nazis did in Germany—but I understand what he means.).
This is not a new debate.
In 1994, San Francisco’s Columbus Day evolved and became “Italian Heritage Day,” celebrating the achievements of all Italians and Italian-Americans. This provides us one model of how folks proud of Italian heritage can celebrate it without invoking the colonization and genocide of Indigenous People in the Americas that occurred after Columbus’ arrival.
It’s not a perfect solution. Some Italian-Americans will object to the change, may feel diminished by acquiescing to the needs or sentiments of another group or to “political correctness.” But Columbus is not the sole source of Italian pride, though he may be a powerful symbol.
As much as anyone else, Americans of Italian heritage can honor the loss and devastation our fellow Americans of Native ancestry have experienced (and some argue still experience). We can sidestep the false sense of competition we might feel, that suggests that giving honor to another group diminishes our own group’s honor.
I don’t believe it does.
I believe we gain honor by behaving honorably. And recognizing the loss and pain of another person or group, remembering with them, commemorating their Calamity, is most definitely honorable behavior.
What better way to celebrate Italian Heritage Day than by demonstrating honor, pride, compassion, and graciousness?