The cultural, ethnic, and moral tug of war between the official American holiday Columbus Day and an insurgent Indigenous Peoples Day has taken over new dimensions in the years of Black Lives Matter protests which widened to include other persecuted and endangered minorities and then the stifling, isolating Coronavirus pandemic. The Indigenous celebrations continued to gather momentum as more municipalities, school districts, states, and other jurisdictions dropped the old holiday for the new observance.
In 2020 as BLM activists began pulling down Confederate monuments, Native Americans and their allies were inspired to do the same to the arch symbol of colonialist oppression, the alleged Great Navigator. Several monuments were torn down, defaced, or removed by local authorities.
After it was attacked and defaced by protestors this summer,Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot order the Grant Park Columbus statue covered and removed.
In Chicago where marchers failed to pull down a prominent statue on Columbus Drive in downtown lakeshore Grant Park and tagged it with graffiti, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the statue temporarily removed along with two others in neighborhood parks. Naturally there was also a backlash uproar from the Italian-American community, simple traditionalists, and promoters of respect for “European culture” A/K/A White nationalists.
For more than two years the fate of those statues was in limbo as a city panel weighed their fates. Last March Mayor Lightfoot, who is facing a tough re-election battle, announced that she wanted to return three statues to their original pedestals with extra security protections for the prominent downtown monument. But in August the commission charged with reviewing Chicago’s more than 500 public monuments as part of a “a racial healing and historical reckoning project” recommended that 13 monuments be removed, including the city’s three statues of Columbus. As of this writing, Lightfoot who is juggling a bid for loyalty from the city’s large and traditionally Democratic Italian communities, and her waning appeal as a progressive with sympathetic ties to all minority groups, has not announced whether she will follow the commission’s recommendations.
Meanwhile most annual Columbus Day observances including those ubiquitous parades have resumed as the country emerges from the pandemic. Most will not have government sponsorship or official approval. They will be private, First Amendment protected affairs like the big Chicago parade today sponsored by the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans and the Plumber’s Union. But with the election just weeks away politicians from both parties will be on hand with floats and marching units.
Meanwhile, Chicago Indigenous Peoples Day observation will be more muted. The Chicago History Museum on North Clark Street will feature a day of cultural events and lectures while Indigenous Peoples’ Day Chicago, a non-profit annual artistic and cultural event to showcase Native American musicians held a concert yesterday in the Logan Square Field house and today at the Old Town School of Folk Music Maurer Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave. Unlike many pre-pandemic years, I have seen no announced protest marches or rallies.
International Indigenous Peoples Day is celebrated on August 8 in most of the Americas and in other parts of the world. I have blogged the still spreading and growing recognition that has its official origins in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. But in the United States Native Americans have been staging actions, protests, and alternative events to Federal Holiday on the Second Monday in October for decades.
Your calendar probably marked today, October 10, as Columbus Day in recognition of Cristoforo Colombo/Cristóbal Colón/Christopher Columbus. I’ve blogged about him, too, and his alleged discovery—alleged because he didn’t know where he was going, “found” what was never lost, claimed what wasn’t his to take, and didn’t even know where the hell he was. When just about everyone else in Europe had figured out that he never reached the East Indies or Asia he continued to lie about it.
None-the-less, the mercenary mariner was rewarded with fancy titles—Admiral of the Ocean Sea for one—and made Viceroy over half the damned world. And he screwed that up by being so brutal that he virtually wiped out the once numerous Carib peoples who inhabited the islands under his immediate effective sway. He also bullied and oppressed potential rivals—would be Conquistadors of even richer realms on the mainland, many of whom had better connections at Court than a Genoan hireling. He was stripped of his titles, wealth confiscated, and shipped to Spain in disgrace and chains.
Not much to celebrate there.
Yet even though Columbus never set foot in North America—the closest he got was wandering around portions of Central America after being abandoned by mutineers and quite typically lost—he somehow became an iconic folk figure and symbol of the New World to the English and the overwhelmingly Protestant colonists hugging to the Atlantic shore far to the north of any of his voyages.
Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian sailor with even less to justify it, swooped in and got his name attached to two continents just because he knew the right cartographer. But Columbia was a popular alternative name for Western Hemisphere lands and some Patriots wanted to adopt it officially for their new country. Think of the song, once almost an unofficial national anthem, Columbia the Gem of the Ocean, and other evidence. When Thomas Jefferson’s pal Joel Barlow, a diplomat and literary dabbler, wanted to create a national epic poem he churned out The Columbiad, a turgid contemplation of Columbus and the new world.
Around the 400th anniversary of the alleged discovery in 1892 interest in him was elevated by events around the world, but particularly at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition. American Catholics—a struggling and despised minority—looked to the notoriously pious Columbus who had slaughtered all those natives in the guise of converting them to the One True Church to establish their bona fides as worthy Americans. Thus, the Knights of Columbus became the Catholic answer to the WASP Masonic Lodges.
But it was urban Italians, among the last European immigrants to become White, in the big cities of the East Coast and Midwest who made Columbus Day and lavish annual parades an answer to the earlier immigrants—especially the Irish—in their struggle for a fat slice of the patronage and privilege pie of the Democratic Party machines.
In 1967 a handful of protesters from the American Indian Center in Uptown showed up downtown for the first protest against Columbus Day. The movement blossomed and grew.
As protests against honoring a figure who represented centuries of land theft, colonial subjugation, genocide, and cultural annihilation has grown, support for the holiday has waned. City after City and several States have officially dumped Columbus Day and most have adopted some form on Indigenous Peoples Day in its stead. Support had dwindled to indignant Italian civic organizations and the kind of cultural fuddy-duddies who cannot stomach change of any kind.
More recently, however, a sub-set of the Alt-Right and neo-fascist movements who claim to honor and preserve European culture and secure its dominance in American society, have begun to make war on the anti-Columbus Day warriors, especially attacking Native Americans and a “cultural elite of race traitors”.
Anyway, all of that is more than I intended to write about Columbus. By now you know the story. So, I celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day today. I hope you do too.