Baltimore City Council: Don’t Shortchange Indigenous Peoples Day (OPINION)

Editor’s Note: Originally published at Medium. The author has given us permission to republish here.

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BALTIMORE — Cities across the country are changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Here in Baltimore, however, some are against this change and argue that Columbus Day is not so much about celebrating the man as it is about celebrating Italian heritage and assimilation into American culture. As a result, our city council is nearly unanimous in its support of a so-called compromise that would see October 12 become Indigenous Peoples and Italian-Americans Day. As much as this should feel like a step towards progress, it actually feels like a slap in the face. It signals to me that Indigenous People are not important enough to merit a full apology, just a half apology.

I commend Italian Americans who are proud of their heritage and actually put in the work of preserving, and passing down their culture and traditions. But all of us need to have a good, honest conversation about the difference between equality and equity, as well as the importance of doing justice. Taking away one group’s holiday cannot be compared to 500 years of taking away another group’s lives and land. Doing justice means righting wrongs, and it’s simply wrong to exalt a man who exploited Taíno Indians to extinction, kicked open the gates to further European colonization of the Americas and commenced the transatlantic slave trade. The next question then becomes, how do we amend the mistake of honoring Columbus’ legacy? The obvious answer should be that we replace memorializing this oppressor with fully devoting our attention to the honor and dignity of the people that were harmed instead.

Depiction of Columbus and his men confronting Taínos on the coast of Jamaica in 1494.

Even if October 12 is exclusively known as Indigenous Peoples Day, the month of October will continue to be Italian Heritage and Culture Month, as it has been since 2010 via a proclamation signed by our current president. There will still be countless opportunities in the Baltimore region, and throughout the country, to celebrate Italian and Italian-American culture. The influence of Italians and their descendants is very palpable in our society, and much of it is due to people’s hard work; but we shouldn’t forget that while our country received immigrants from Europe, who certainly endured many hardships, our authorities also initiated and permitted the deadly removal of Native Americans from their own land so that people of European descent could thrive in their place.

That’s why this name-change compromise is a misguided application of equality (treating everyone the same, free of differentiation) when the intention of the name change is a sense of justice, and equity (a condition when we are all recognized and treated as equal). In this case, equity would look like achieving a balance to the Eurocentric narratives surrounding the discovery of America that we’ve been fed for centuries. Observing Indigenous Peoples Day would merely be a dent, albeit a significant step forward. Observing Indigenous Peoples and Italian Americans Day does not help us achieve such equity. It just maintains a preference for European perspectives. Current events in Standing Rock teach us how essential it is to actively reverse the erasure of Native Americans, and if anything, we need more opportunities to be taught about the plight of indigenous peoples.

I believe there is so much opportunity for rich discussion between Italian Americans, Native Americans of North America and immigrant groups from south of the Rio Grande who possess indigenous ancestry as well: comparing and contrasting stories of assimilation, what we or our families have had to go through and so much more. But when it comes to replacing Columbus Day exclusively with Indigenous Peoples Day, it should be a no-brainer. Countless cities have done so already, without any qualms. Give this to us. We are trying to heal. We just want to let everyone know: we are not invisible, we are still here.

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Andrew Reinel is based in Baltimore. He tweets from Andrei_700.

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