Next Monday many in our nation will celebrate the achievements of Christopher Columbus, but the citizens of our second largest city will not.
In August the Los Angeles City Council voted 14-1 to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, joining a growing number of communities across the country making this switch. In the last five years 45 cities in 20 states have either replaced or removed Columbus Day; 14 cities have done it in 2017 alone.
The state governments of Alaska, Hawaii, Minnesota, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont have done likewise. While surveys suggest a majority of Americans continue to support Columbus Day, millions nationwide have walked away from it.
Some will no doubt view the move by Los Angeles as another example of Hollywood’s politically correct rewriting of history. But in fact Los Angeles has the second largest Native American population in the country, and the state of California as a whole has the largest number in the United States, almost 365,000 people. The Los Angeles council member who authored the bill to replace Columbus Day is himself a member of the Wyandotte Nation; when he took office four years ago, he was sworn in by his tribe’s chief.
Some will no doubt view the move by Los Angeles as another example of Hollywood’s politically correct rewriting of history.
The fundamental arguments for and against Columbus Day are well-established. Columbus’s trip across the Atlantic was a journey akin in its time to astronauts traveling to the moon; that he undertook it, let alone survived it, is astonishing. (Leif Ericson landed in Newfoundland almost 500 years earlier, an even more remarkable feat.) But his arrival in the Caribbean in 1492 also led to the forced colonization and eventual extermination of tens of millions of native inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere.
What goes largely unmentioned in the debate, however, is the way in which contemporary opposition to Columbus Day echoes the motives behind its inception. Christopher Columbus rose to prominence in 19th-century America largely through the efforts of newly landed Italian immigrants who were trying to overcome deep prejudice against them.
Pointing to Columbus as an American hero, Italians argued they had been of service to the country from its very origins.
Discrimination and abuse because of their country of origin, darker skin and Catholicism were commonplace. After 11 Sicilians were lynched in New Orleans for a crime six had already been acquitted of committing, The New York Times wrote in support of the mob, saying, “These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins...are a pest to us without mitigation.”
Pointing to the Catholic and Italian Columbus as an American hero, the nation’s ur-pioneer, Italians argued they had been of service to the country from its very origins. And they were greatly helped in selling that idea by the Knights of Columbus, who at their founding in 1882 had identified themselves with Christopher Columbus for similar reasons.
“By taking the name of Columbus,” said Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson on the 500th anniversary of the death of Columbus, “the Knights were able to remind the entire country of the Catholic roots of the New World, and to highlight the fact that faithful Catholics could also be good citizens, a fact that few would question today.”
“Celebrating Columbus Day does not honor their story and their struggle and their history; it insults it.”
(For those who have ever wondered how a Catholic magazine came to call itself something as oddly a-religious as America, the explanation is quite similar. At its founding in 1909 America’s editors choose the name as a way of asserting the relevance of Catholicism to American life and to suggest the permanence of a Catholic presence in the United States.)
Those who oppose Columbus Day today do so out of the same belief that something as seemingly innocuous as a federal holiday has the power to overcome or reinforce prejudice. And Italian-Americans’ status today—not foreign invaders but everyday Americans with the freedom to live as they wish, even to oppose attempts to change the holiday—highlights just how valid that belief is.
At the Los Angeles City Council’s public hearing, Councilman Mike Bonin noted that he had received one email from an Italian-American asking him not to vote in favor of the changing theme for the holiday, saying, “I ask that you do not take away the American Dream of our ancestors and their history.”
Mr. Bonin, the great-grandson of Italian immigrants, offered this response: “I’ve thought about my ancestors and their history. And to me, celebrating Columbus Day does not honor their story and their struggle and their history; it insults it, and it besmirches it. They came here to build something, not to destroy something. They came here to earn something and not to steal something. They came here to make life better for their children, and not to take away something for someone else’s children.”
He added, “I think the best way as an Italian-American that I can honor their sacrifice and their heritage is to try and make the world better for their children and for my children. And part of that is trying to make a better world.”