Across this great Nation, never before has there been a movement by local, state, and now federal officials against people of one ethnic descent in the 21st century. I am founder of the Italian-American Defense League, member of the Italian American Alliance, son of an Italian orphan who sought a better life in the United States, and father concerned with preserving Italian-American heritage, history, and culture for future generations of Americans.
There is a problem today that is creating a false divide between Native Americans and Italian Americans - the elimination of Columbus Day. Let me start with a solution to this problem. Restore Columbus Day and designate Indigenous People's Day, a day worthy of recognition, to either August 9th (The International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples), September 24th (Native American Day in California) or the Friday after Thanksgiving, a better fit based on historical context.
Replacing Columbus Day is contrary to a spirit of diversity, equity, and inclusion by excluding Italian Americans. Historical context shows Columbus Day was designated because of anti-Italianism and anti-Catholicism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even today, many who oppose Columbus are anti-Catholic and ignorant of Italian-American history. Please understand that the majority of Italian Americans view the replacement of Columbus Day as discriminatory, biased, and divisive. A loud and vocal few are hijacking the agenda of Indigenous People, using it for their own political advancement.
In recent years, as I have revisited and researched Columbus Day, I have found:
First, President Barack Obama, just as every president dating back to Benjamin Harrison, understood the significance of Columbus Day for people of Italian descent and all Americans. Here is President Obama's proclamation in 2011:
On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crewmembers sighted land after an ambitious voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. The ideals that guided them to this land--courage, determination, and a thirst for discovery--have inspired countless Americans and led to some of our Nation's proudest accomplishments. Today, we renew our commitment to fostering the same spirit of innovation and exploration that will help future generations reach new horizons.
Ten weeks before his arrival in the Americas, Columbus and his crewmembers set sail from Spain in search of a westward route to Asia. Though their journey was daring, it did not yield the trade route they sought. Instead, it illuminated a continent then unknown to Europe, and established an unbreakable bond between two distant lands.
These explorers, and countless others that followed them, encountered indigenous peoples that had lived in the Western hemisphere for tens of thousands of years. On this day, we also remember the tragic hardships these communities endured. We honor their countless and ongoing contributions to our Nation, and we recommit to strengthening the tribal communities that continue to enrich the fabric of American life.
Columbus returned to the Americas three more times after his first historic voyage, and his journey has been followed by millions of immigrants, including our Nation's earliest settlers and Founders. Born
in Genoa, Italy, Christopher Columbus was the first in a proud tradition of Italians to cross the Atlantic to our shores. Today, we recognize their indelible influence on our country and celebrate the remarkableways Italian-Americans have shaped the American experience.
The excitement Christopher Columbus and his crewmembers experienced that October morning is felt every day by today's pioneers: entrepreneurs and inventors, researchers and engineers. On the anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage, we celebrate the pursuit of discovery as an essential element of the American character. Embracing this heritage and inspiring young people to set their own sails, our Nation will reach the shores of an ever brighter tomorrow.
In commemoration of Christopher Columbus's historic voyage 519 years ago, the Congress, by joint resolution of April 30, 1934, and modified in 1968 (36 U.S.C. 107), as amended, has requested the President proclaim the second Monday of October of each year as ``Columbus Day.'' NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 10, 2011, as Columbus Day. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities. I also direct that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of our diverse history and all who have contributed to shaping this Nation.
Historically, President Obama's remarks show that Columbus Day has been a bipartisan celebration of events leading to the founding of our Nation and the positive impact of Italian-Americans on our beloved country.
Second, as Americans we cannot forget the journey of all immigrant groups throughout history and their quests for justice, including Italians. August 23, 2021 was the anniversary of the execution of Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for a murder they didn’t commit in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The trial took place during a time of Italia-phobia and drew worldwide attention. The context for this trial is the 1920's, a time of resurgence of the KKK and The (anti) Immigration Act of 1924 which limited the immigration of Catholics, including Italians. That is also the time that people of Italian descent funded the erection of Christopher Columbus statues across America, because Columbus was an Italian and Catholic, in good faith with local governments. Essentially, eliminating Columbus Day is siding with white supremacists of the Twentieth Century, over poverty stricken Italian immigrants who never felt a national identity in their home country, but rallied behind becoming American.
In another example showing Columbus Day is tied to Italian-American heritage and history, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in 1892 after the March 14, 1891 lynching of 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans. This is the single largest lynching in U.S. history. Harrison recommended “to the people the observance in all their localities of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America…” and described Columbus as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” Native Americans and Italian Americans marched during the first Columbus Day parade in New Orleans in the spirit of unity in stark contrast to the forces at be who are creating an artificial divide between the groups today.
Recently, the Italian Parliament passed a resolution to defend Christopher Columbus and Italy’s special relationship with the United States, showing the holiday's significance to people of Italian descent. Eliminating Italian-American heritage and culture may diminish diplomatic relations between the two nations. The resolution commits the government:
This resolution shows that celebrating Columbus Day is meaningful to people of Italian descent from the past, today, and to future generations.
Third, if we cannot celebrate Columbus Day, then we cannot celebrate Indigenous People's Day either, because the Americas were not a Garden of Eden prior to Native American encounters with Europeans. Eastern Native American tribes fought in “mourning wars.” Native Americans, “such as the Mahican, Cofitachequi, Susquehannock, Petun, Oneida, and Micmac retaliated for the deaths of relatives and clan members by taking captives or killing Indians from rival bands.” One of the reasons for fighting was that these “blood feuds provided a steady source of captives for some Native Americans’ ritual sacrifices.” Furthermore, “engagements were usually one-sided affairs that ended with the taking of captives.” For many captives, “the entire village assembled in the primary war chief’s longhouse and began torturing the captive in a lengthy, highly ritualized ceremony. After the prisoner’s death, the tribe concluded the ceremony by cooking and eating his remains.” Lastly, “women, children, and skilled or especially attractive men were adopted into the family.”
Like supporters of Christopher Columbus who do not celebrate the actions of Roldan, Bobadilla and Ovando, it is doubtful that today’s Native Americans celebrate inhumane native practices of the past. Though the history is complex and shocking by today’s standards, modern thinkers can agree that those inhumane Native American practices were acceptable at that time, and we should still celebrate Native American heritages today. Modern day revisionists use Columbus as a scapegoat for all sins of the past while failing to acknowledge human sacrifices of the Aztecs and cannibalism by the Caribes. Academically giving a "free pass" to some native groups, while demonizing Columbus for the sins of others, is unsound and unworthy of serious scholarship.
Rafael Ortiz, author of Christopher Columbus The Hero, is of Taino (Puerto Rican) descent and defends Columbus and Italian Americans. Ortiz counters every point against Columbus with context and citations. He states “I hope the media retract their false biographies and accusations on Columbus and correct their mistakes. I hope people will stop sharing false information in social media, without first double-checking the facts.”
For the past thirty years, Columbus is being accused of crimes he didn’t commit. Revisionists and activists fail to see themselves as committing another wave of anti-Italian and anti-Catholic discrimination. They only see using Columbus to achieve their own political agenda. In addition to Rafael Ortiz, researchers, historians, and anthropologists of the present and past support my claims, including: Carol Delaney, Mary Graber, and Samuel Eliot Morison. Delaney Ph.D., Harvard Divinity School, the University of Chicago, and Boston University, wrote “Columbus never killed any natives and continually admonished his men not to maraud, rape or plunder.”
By today's standards, I condemn Captain Martin Alonso Pinzon, Francisco Roldan, and Francisco de Bobadilla for their sins and atrocities. However, as I learn more I am cautious of becoming guilty of presentism, viewing history through today’s lens and not in the context of the past. Today's revisionists must face the facts. It took the United States less than 100 years to rid the country of slavery, a human institution that was present in all cultures since the beginning of known history, a practice that Columbus never participated in.
Here are the words of Friar Bartolome de Las Casas, known as the defender of the Indians, "But here is observable, that the desolation of these Isles and Provinces took beginning since the decease of the most serene Isabella, about the year 1504." Columbus had already returned from his fourth voyage by then. This shows that Las Casas believed that Columbus’s actions during his four voyages were just and lawful. In life, Christopher Columbus was exonerated from false accusations by his political adversaries by the Spanish sovereigns, and today revisionists are putting Columbus on trial again, unjustly.
I am hoping to start a conversation with influential members of Native American groups to stand side by side with Italian Americans (and patriots) to celebrate multiculturalism and diversity, instead of destroying it. We have a great responsibility as today's Americans to create an environment of togetherness and truth for future generations.
I humbly ask that you share this letter with anyone open to a bipartisan and unifying solution that honors and respects both Native Americans and Italian Americans. I would welcome the opportunity to elaborate on any of my remarks.
Happy Columbus Day!
Founder of IADL