THE UNITED STATES is grappling with the legacy of slavery, systemic racism, and oppression. This requires us, as responsible citizens, to reflect on our own lives, and question our long-held assumptions. We need, furthermore, to intentionally support efforts to dismantle the stereotypes and bigotry ingrained in our country’s history and culture.
Calendars mark the second Monday in October as Columbus Day, but there is a growing and important movement to shift the significance of this holiday to celebrate the cultures, histories, and contributions of the indigenous people whose land Christopher Columbus and other colonizers claimed as theirs, which led to the persecution and death of millions of indigenous peoples.
Many states and cities, from the most “red” to the most “blue,” have begun to celebrate the thriving cultures that existed in the Americas before and after Columbus’s arrival as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. While states including Vermont, Maine, New Mexico, Alaska, Oregon, Minnesota, and Hawaii, and cities including Cambridge, Somerville, Seattle, Minneapolis, Fargo, Boise, and Columbus have made this important change, our Commonwealth has not.
It is hard to acknowledge that the things we learned in grade school were only partially true, and the heroes many of us hold in high regard are not the people we thought they were. We have an obligation to our history and to our children to move beyond inaccurate and incomplete versions of our story. Nostalgia is not a reason to ignore facts.
We recognize the role that Christopher Columbus has played in our national psyche. Especially for Italian-Americans like ourselves, his narrative gives us a special place in American history. Yet the reality of Columbus’ time in the Americas and his intentional role in terrorizing the native peoples he met cannot be ignored. The role of Italian immigrants in the Americas deserves to be celebrated, and there are plenty of Italian-Americans more deserving of national praise.
Most of what many of us learned about Columbus is simply false. Ancient Greeks had already proven that the world was not flat. The European monarchs of France, England, and Portugal who rejected Columbus’s proposal did so because they knew his math about the circumference of the world and the distance between Europe and Asia was wrong. Most of us also know he never set foot in North America and was not the first European to reach this continent. So what legacy of Columbus are we actually celebrating?
Columbus undeniably started a massive influx of European colonists into what is now the Americas. Yet it is important that we look beyond the patriotic creations of the 1930s and acknowledge historical facts. Columbus was an invader whose actions brought about centuries of persecution and the genocide of indigenous peoples across the Americas. He used the indigenous people he encountered and their land for his own profit, instituting brutal tactics to subjugate those he encountered. Such brutality included cutting off the hands of natives who did not secure the required amount of gold, dismembering people and parading their body parts through the street, kidnapping and slave trading. His Brutality eventually included actions against some of his fellow colonists.
Some may dismiss this view as revisionist history, and claim that we are unfairly holding Columbus to today’s more enlightened standards. However, even by the standards of his day, his brutality was such that he was eventually stripped of his title of “Governor and Viceroy of the Indies” and sent back to Spain in shackles. Columbus’ story goes deeper than the “discovery” for which he is most well-known. His is not the history our country should celebrate, the example we should lift up to our children, or the statues we should erect in our cities.
As descendants of Italian-Americans, we pledge to keep working until our Commonwealth formally institutes an Indigenous Peoples’ Day that celebrates the thriving indigenous communities that once existed and still do exist throughout the Americas. It is time that we factually acknowledge the role that Columbus and other European colonists and conquerors have played in our history.
On Monday, we ask that you join us in celebrating the Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuc, Abenaki, Pennacook, and other tribes on whose lands we reside, who continue to fight for their own rights and the replacing of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We encourage everyone to learn more about the indigenous peoples in their communities and follow their lead to create a society that recognizes and works to redress historic and present injustices.
Jack Patrick Lewis is a state representative from Framingham and Lindsay Sabadosa is a state representative from Northampton.