Among increasing recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Italian Americans dig in


Stacey Wescott | Chicago Tribune via AP

Sergio Ceron and Dave Spencer beat Native American drums during a gathering in support of Indigenous Peoples Day in Potawatomi Park on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021 in Chicago.

After a pandemic-borne interruption, the Joint Civic Committee for Italian Americans hosted its annual Columbus Day parade last Monday to a crowd estimated at 20,000 people according to an AP report. But since they last marched along State Street in 2019, the political ground has shifted underneath them. 

This year, President Joe Biden recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a first for an American President, in addition to commemorating Columbus Day in a relatively muted statement. Locally, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the temporary removal of statues of Columbus in public parks over concerns of violence amid protests in July 2020. As of February 2020, Chicago’s Public School board replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day on their calendar. 

This comes as a result of decades of action by Indigenous people. Les Begay, a Diné Nation member who co-founded the Indigenous Peoples Day Coalition of Illinois, a group seeking replacement of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, argues that “Columbus abused Indigenous women and girls, murdered Indigenous people and enslaved them. His actions were the beginning of genocide against Indigenous people, transatlantic slave trade and colonization. [Columbus Day] has to be replaced to honor the original inhabitants of this continent.” 

The overwhelming majority of historical evidence and experts agree with Begay’s description of Columbus’s actions, which he regularly admitted to in his own journal. In one instance, according to a Fordham University compendium, he wrote of the Arawaks Indigenous to the Bahama Islands that “They would make fine servants,” and that “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased.” 

Despite this evidence, however, many in the Italian American community do not view Columbus in the same light. While the Joint Civic Community of Italian Americans, the organization that hosted Monday’s parade, did not respond to requests for comment from The DePaulia in time for publication, its president, Ron Onesti commented on the parade in an interview with ABC.  

“Well we fundamentally disagree with so many mistruths and untruths regarding Columbus,” Onesti said. “All we ask is for all the parties to sit down at a table and come up with a narrative that’s broadened, so that all our concerns can be addressed. We want Indigenous people to have their day, this is our day, and we want to come together and start healing.” 

In a separate interview with the network, he asked “Is it really to honor Indigenous people, or is it just to dishonor Columbus?” 

But because of Columbus’s violent legacy, Begay does not share that assumption.“[Columbus] did not discover this continent and there were estimates of 30 million Native people inhabiting the land,” Begay said.“He’s given credit for discovery [of] this land and his actions of genocide, murder and colonization are whitewashed.” 

Despite this, Begay is also clear that he supports the recognition of Italian American contributions to America, even if he thinks the focus should be placed on Indigenous voices.

“Recognizing Italian American contributions can still be accomplished, but not with Columbus as the focal point. Italian Heritage Day or choosing another Italian to honor could accomplish that objective,” Begay added. “The narrative is always about how we honor Columbus and/or Italian American contributions while completely ignoring Indigenous people and their contributions.”

In addition to Begay’s Coalition’s political success, they are also influencing public opinion. Kara Slagell, a junior, said she believed Columbus’ “legacy represents colonialism, oppression, invasion, suffering [and] pain.” 

“You know, I think that Italian Americans contributed to American history in a lot better ways than Christopher Columbus,” Slagell added.“The mass immigration that happened in the early 1900’s from Italy shaped the way our country grew and developed … I think that’s something worth celebrating for more than the invasion of one short man.”

However, that’s not to say their job is complete. On a state and county level, the holiday on the second Monday of October remains named Columbus Day. And not everyone knows who Columbus was. Sai Akhil Pamulaparthy, a DePaul computer science graduate student, commented on Columbus’s legacy.

 “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m new to the city so I don’t know about him, but I will learn,” Pamulaparthy said.

For Onesti and those he represents, Monday’s parade was a minor victory. Pulling back a large burlap tarp, Onesti beamed in a red, white and green sash as he revealed a hulking marble statue of Columbus that was removed from Arrigo Park by Lightfoot last year. Amid their lawsuit, the Chicago Park District temporarily loaned the statue to parade organizers. But between the claps and hollers of the applauding crowd, the continuing recognition of Columbus sends a very clear signal to Begay. 

“The message continues to be,” Begay wrote in an email to the DePaulia. “Indigenous people and their history, culture and contributions have been both ignored and erased.”