First things first: How many of you know that Philadelphia does, in fact, have an Indigenous Peoples Day? It’s true: In 2011, a City Council resolution declared every first Saturday of October “Indigenous Peoples Day” in Philadelphia. Hardly anyone took notice, and with at least one exception, most everyone else has promptly forgotten.
Instead, Philadelphia on Monday has the dubious honor of once again celebrating that most celebrated of explorers, the man who “discovered” America in 1492: Christopher Columbus. There will be a parade down Broad Street this weekend, and thousands of public school children will stay home Monday for the holiday. I know this sentiment is probably about as popular in certain parts of Philly as removing parking from the Broad Street median (ok, the same parts of Philly). But: Why are we still doing this?
Columbus Day is a relic of our whitewashed history. It was first celebrated on October 12, 1792, by New York’s Tammany Hall, on the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the New World in 1492. It was a combination religious/Italian festival in several parts of the country for decades. Then it became an official federal holiday in 1937, after lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, at the time a powerful Catholic organization. It fit the dominant story of our land: Columbus, aiming for India, “discovered” America instead. Huzzah! A New World came alive.
Let’s divorce the celebration of Italians from the celebration of this one particular Italian with a muddied history. Have an Italian-American Festival, and invite the whole city to join in. But on the anniversary of Columbus landing here, let’s throw a giant party to honor indigenous cultures.
But we know better now. In fact, Columbus could not have “discovered” a land on which thousands of indigenous people were already living. (Nor did he technically land in the United States, but in the Caribbean. Nor was he even the first European; that honor goes to the Vikings in Greenland and Newfoundland.) And we now know Columbus to be more like the embodiment of the scary immigrant Donald Trump would have us fear: He and his crew showed up uninvited, then raped, pillaged and brought death and disease to the land and its people. Even here, in this Sanctuary City of immigrants, we would not—should not—welcome him.
Just as long as there has been Columbus Day, there has been controversy—though for different reasons than now. Anti-Catholic sentiment fueled the first protests. More recently, several cities around the country have turned the tables on Columbus Day by officially declaring the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day. The first—unsurprisingly—was Berkeley, California, in 1992. That’s the same year—the 500th anniversary of Columbus sailing to America—that Philly doubled down on its love of the Italian-born explorer by renaming part of Delaware Avenue in his honor. Minneapolis and Seattle followed Berkeley’s example in 2014; since then, several others you might expect have followed suit, including Lawrence, Kansas; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Boulder, Colorado. Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon no longer celebrate Columbus Day; and the whole state of South Dakota now officially celebrates Native American Day instead.
Many of those places are more in touch with their Native roots than we are here in Philadelphia, where our origin stories are about the birth of these United States. But you don’t have to dig too deep to see evidence of our own indigenous tribes Europeans pushed out. Just look at our neighborhood and street names: Passyunk. Aramingo. Manayunk. Neshaminy. Wissahickon. We have not erased those names from our history—except, of course, for that section of Delaware Avenue that is now Columbus— but we insist on erasing their history from our reality.
Many school children still—still!—learn the story of Columbus “discovering” America. How else to explain to them the fact that they have a holiday the second Monday in October? But if we were to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, those children would be learning about what was here already, and understand that all of history is not the Euro-centric version that has left certain people comfortable for generations—and left others out. Instead, Columbus Day is the same attempt to erase history that is felt in so many of this country’s biggest problems: We deny the after-effects of slavery, of bad banking behavior, of unfettered gun laws, and we have an African American community disproportionately in poverty and imprisoned, a financial crisis devastating to regular people always on the horizon, a mass shooting every week. Shouldn’t we rethink this approach?
Columbus Day is the same attempt to erase history that is felt in so many of this country’s biggest problems: We deny the after-effects of slavery, of bad banking behavior, of unfettered gun laws, and we have an African American community disproportionately in poverty and imprisoned, a financial crisis devastating to regular people always on the horizon, a mass shooting every week.
To be clear: Adopting Indigenous Peoples Day is not a change that will make an immediate difference in the lives of native people here or elsewhere. It is symbolic at a time when some have little patience for symbols that don’t create real change, as Larry Platt has argued here in The Citizen. But actually, symbolism does matter, if only in raising questions, starting conversations, exposing ideas that can eventually lead to real change. It’s Kaepernick’s knee, removing the Confederate flag, changing the name of various Redskins teams, taking down the Rizzo statue. No one has solved poverty or racism or schools by doing (or proposing) any of those things. But part of changing a culture is changing what we take pride in, and then adjusting our society to meet those new values. Do we really want to be a city that takes pride in fairy tales that, frankly, celebrate the decimation of a whole culture?
Columbus Day in Philly is not even really about Columbus. It’s a celebration of Italian Americans. Most of those people out on Monday waving their Italian flags are doing so because of their heritage, not because of stories about Columbus and what he did or didn’t do in early America. This is something worth honoring. But let’s divorce the celebration of Italians from the celebration of this one particular Italian with a muddied history that sullies the good name of those who have followed. Have an Italian-American Festival, and invite the whole city to join in.
But on the anniversary of Columbus arriving in America, let’s do what Ollin Yoliztli Calmecac, a West Philly group devoted to raising awareness of pre-Spanish indigenous Mexican culture, does every first Saturday in October: Throw a giant party with jubilant dance troupes, food, music and art from various native cultures of the Americas. That’s something we could all take pride in.Header photo by Ollin Yoliztli Calmecac on Facebook