It was disheartening to learn that the School Committee is once again debating changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. On Wednesday, March 22nd, they will vote. As a proud Italian-American and member of the Wilmington Sons/Daughters of Italy, I urge them to leave Columbus Day as is. For 200 years Columbus was revered in America for permanently opening relations between the Americas and the rest of the world. In 1992, however, on the 500th anniversary of his first crossing, special interest groups destroyed Columbus’ reputation to further their own political and social agendas. Protestors, with great vigor but little historical sense, cast all blame for the atrocities committed against American Indians at the feet of Christopher Columbus. Such efforts only serve to whitewash and revise the true history of the Americas.
When I spoke at the last School Committee meeting, I suggested that we must teach our children to think critically. It appears that our students are being taught erroneous information about Columbus, much of which is taken from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Children need to be taught to research the pros and cons of EVERYTHING in order to make an informed decision about whatever it is they are learning. Please note a list of facts vs fiction that I have listed at the end of this letter.
Columbus Day has long been heralded by the Italian-American community. We think of it as “our holiday.” We observe Columbus Day as a day to celebrate our heritage and contributions to society. This holiday also recognizes our ancestors’ early struggle to overcome poverty, discrimination, and exploitation. Many do not know that Italian immigrants were lynched in the South; paid less than white and black workers in the North; and declared ‘enemy aliens’ in WWII. In fact, during WWII, Italian immigrants were interned, had their property confiscated, were forced to move, and subjected to curfews and travel restrictions. The Columbus Day holiday marks our journey from denigrated immigrants to successful citizens of our nation. It is a holiday in which Italian-Americans rejoice.
I respectfully submit that the Indigenous People’s experiences and trauma cannot be reduced to plucking one day off the calendar associated with one marginalized group of Americans and passing it onto another. This smacks of the same paternalistic mentality that got us here – a group of self-appointed advocates passing responsibility for the acts of centuries and placing it on the shoulders of one figure, and then ‘calling it a day’ (literally and figuratively). Let’s not repeat past mistakes of doing the easy thing and placing our collective guilt on the shoulders of one historical figure or people. I do not speak for every person of Italian descent, but I believe I speak for many. While I recognize the impact of the designation
of ‘Columbus Day” and its associations to many, the healing of one group need not come at the expense of another historically ethnically oppressed group. Let’s not deceive ourselves into believing that in changing the name of a holiday, we can begin to erase the trauma inflicted by an entire civilization upon another.
Michele Caira Nortonen
COLUMBUS DAY FACT vs FICTION
FICTION: Columbus didn’t discover America.
FACT: In every significant way, he did. Even if others visited the continent sporadically before he did, their voyages had no historical significance. Columbus’ voyages, however, marked the end of thousands of years of isolation between the Western Hemisphere and the rest of the world.
The recorded history of the Americas and the Caribbean starts with Columbus.
FICTION: Columbus was a slave trader.
FACT: Columbus never owned slaves nor brought any to the Western Hemisphere from Africa.
During his first voyage in 1492, Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). There, with the help of a tribe of friendly Taino Indians, he built a fort called Navidad and left 40 of his crew there when he returned to Spain in January 1493.
FICTION: Columbus was a racist.
FACT: No evidence indicates that Columbus thought the islanders he met were racially inferior in any way. In fact, in the journal of his first voyage, Columbus describes the Tainos and other tribes as “well-made with fine shapes and faces … their eyes large and very beautiful ..straight-limbed without exception and handsomely shaped…” He praised their generosity, innocence, and intelligence, saying they could “readily become Christians as they have a good understanding.”
FICTION: Columbus committed genocide.
FACT: The destruction of the native populations of North and South America over the centuries is a complex historical tragedy. No one knows exactly how many people were here when Europeans arrived. Many researchers believe the number to be around 40 million. Columbus made four voyages to the Caribbean in a twelve-year period (1492-1504), spending from only seven months to two years and nine months (including the year he was shipwrecked on his fourth voyage). It is inconceivable that he could have killed millions of people in so short a time.
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