Observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Somerville

This year on Monday, October 8 the City of Somerville will observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We will join–among many others–Alaska, Vermont, Durango, Colo. and Traverse City, Mich. in doing the right thing. It’s been an issue we’ve given careful consideration, and many inside and outside our city have made compelling arguments for this change. In fact, during the past year I received letters from East Somerville Community School students urging the change. One asked, “Why would we want to commemorate someone who slaughtered innocent people?” Fair question, inescapable answer: we shouldn’t.

The arc of history bends not only toward justice, but toward reason. Columbus Day is a relic of an outdated and oversimplified version of history. We all know there’s more to the story than a nursery rhyme. In Somerville we will now pay tribute to a history that runs much deeper than the events of 1492.

As an Italian-American–one who grew up speaking Italian at home and whose parents were born in Italy–I can testify this actually isn’t all that difficult a decision. The only time Christopher Columbus’ name came up in our household was that my father sailed to the U.S. from Italy on a boat named Cristoforo Colombo, and I’ve never been in an Italian-American home (and I’ve been in a lot of them) where they had a crushed velvet or watercolor painting of Columbus hanging on the wall. If you want talk about a name Italian-Americans speak with reverence, try Frank Sinatra.

Italians have a lot to be proud of without overblowing the cultural importance of Columbus. We have the entire history of Rome, including Julius Caesar. We have Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante and Gallileo. In modern times we’ve had local sports legends like Rocky Marciano, Tony Conigliaro and Gino Cappelletti to idolize.

Columbus wasn’t the first European to sail to the Americas. He didn’t discover anything. In fact, he landed on continents where people had been living for 10,000+ years. We don’t call our country the United States of Columbia because it was another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed here shortly after Columbus and corrected the mistaken belief that this was Asia. Also, outside of some notable sailors/explorers, Italy didn’t colonize the Americas.

That brings me to the history we simply can’t sweep under the rug. Columbus participated in the early stages of what became a genocide. On the island of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) where Columbus established his first colony, chroniclers of that era detail enslavement, torture and dismemberment. Some natives had their hands chopped off when they didn’t produce enough gold. The cruelty he inflicted touched off mass suicides. Sadly, far greater numbers would die after that in the scouring of two continents lasting hundreds of years in which millions lost their lives. Observance of that loss and respect for the people who suffered it is not a lot to ask from those of us whose families migrated here in its wake. By changing our customs around the holiday, we’re still saying we remember Columbus. We just don’t see that as cause to celebrate.

This issue is a lot like the Confederate flag for southerners. As an Italian-American it feels good that there is an official holiday that is nominally about us. We are proud of our heritage. Yet the specifics of this holiday run so deep into human suffering that we need to shift our pride elsewhere. We still have descendants of the first people who populated these lands among us. We should not make a celebration of their tragedy.

This is not a case of erasing history. It is a case of recognizing the fuller scope of history and being more respectful toward those to whom it was unkind. Designating a holiday for the people whose history in the lands dwarfs those of us who came over post-Columbus opens the door to a richer understanding of history. I know we have a nation that gets embroiled in culture wars these days. Yet this is one instance where we should be cultured enough not to have a war.

We created a holiday in 1934 with the best of intentions, but it runs into much deeper and more tragic territory. We know better and, in Somerville, we now will do better. On October 8 I wish everyone a happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day.