I come from Laguna Pueblo and the Yuma Nation, and even in my small reservation border town ― where many of us children were Pueblo, Apache, Ute and Navajo ― Columbus Day was taken seriously by my elementary school teachers. We honored the Italian explorer, coloring pictures of the ships Columbus captained to “discover” our homeland. We took red crayons to the crusader flag, never realizing then that it was the same color as the blood our ancestors shed during colonization at the hands of Columbus and his Spanish conquistadors.
I’m a Native woman, but my husband is an Italian immigrant born and raised in Italy. Columbus Day is an important federal holiday for many Italian-Americans of the baby boomer generation, and I understand why: Many of them remember a time when their grandparents were considered outsiders in this country and faced violence and oppression as a result.
But this federal holiday ― and the monuments that celebrate Columbus as an uncomplicated hero ― must go.
Few educational texts in this country return to reliable, primary sources when it comes to discussions about Columbus. Biographical depictions of the explorer tend to be subjective and came long after his death. But one historian who knew Columbus personally, Bartolemé de las Casas, published A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies in 1552. He decried the brutality, describing how Columbus and the conquistadors disfigured Native slaves and fed them alive to dogs. Columbus was eventually arrested by the Spanish Crown and stripped of his governorship for executing Spanish citizens without a trial.
Ever since Berkeley, California, became the first U.S. city to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in the early 1990s, Americans have been re-examining the explorer’s role in our nation’s history. In blue states especially, communities now recognize Columbus as a slaveholder, rapist and plunderer of gold; a total of 56 cities and four states have followed Berkeley’s example.
It’s not only Native populations that are harmed when we continue to celebrate Columbus year after year. The first and perhaps most famous Columbus monuments sits in Tower Grove Park in St. Louis. It was commissioned more than 130 years ago by an English-born businessman named Henry Shaw, who was reportedly appalled by the way Italian-Americans were being treated by American society and wanted to help the community integrate and gain acceptance.
The monument honoring Columbus has been repeatedly defaced in recent years, particularly since Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old man, was shot and killed by a police officer in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Last year around the Columbus Day federal holiday, bright red graffiti across the statue spelled out “Black Lives Matter” and “murderer,” calling attention to the atrocities the explorer committed against African slaves.
Growing up in Milan, my husband’s teachers spoke openly about Columbus’ brutal past. He doesn’t understand why Americans stay so attached to the Genovese explorer when Italian luminaries like Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giordano Bruno and Amatore Sciesa could easily be honored instead.
It’s not my place to tell Italian-Americans who might replace Columbus as their historical hero. But I can say that he represents a great deal of suffering for us Native Americans. We are not immigrants, yet we remain outsiders on our own land, with voices that are rarely heard.
The executive director of Tower Grove Park recently asked protesters ― white students, Black Lives Matter activists and urban Native professionals ― to make nonbinding recommendations about whether the statue should be removed from the park entirely or a plaque added to contextualize its history. A community forum will be held this month to discuss the issue.
These talks represent progress, though they promise to be heated and there’s no assurance that any proposed changes will actually be implemented.
I admire Henry Shaw for wanting to help an ostracized people feel more at home in their country. He cared about Italian immigrants when they were reviled by society, and thanks to people like him, their population no longer needs thoughtful inclusion. We can honor Shaw’s legacy now by turning our attention to another ostracized population: the Native community.
Imagine traveling to Europe and seeing statues of Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler perched on pedestals. You wouldn’t, because these countries recognize their violent histories. Yet here in America, 46 states still celebrate a man who committed unspeakable crimes against humanity.
I suggest we revise our nation’s origin story by forcing ourselves to see it more clearly. We must add proper historical context to our Columbus monuments and put them in museums, rather than public parks. If Italian-Americans wish to continue celebrating their heritage (and they have every right to), there are many other important historical figures to be proud of.
Let’s consider Native children across the country, whose sense of self and worth would be greatly improved by the renaming of this federal holiday. Columbus Day honors one man with a violent and controversial past; Indigenous Peoples Day honors many who have died and who have survived historic discrimination and violence. Let’s make it Indigenous Peoples Day once and for all.
Deborah Taffa is an enrolled member of the Yuma Indian Nation and a descendant of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. She teaches creative nonfiction at Webster University in St. Louis and will be writing season three of the PBS series “America From the Ground Up.”
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