This year, Indigenous Peoples Day was officially declared a federal holiday by President Joe Biden. Although this was considered a huge victory for Indigenous people, President Biden also once again declared the celebration of Columbus Day. This left Indigenous communities across the nation feeling frustrated, because Indigenous Peoples Day originally began as a direct protest to completely stop celebrating Columbus Day. We celebrated the victory of having the day recognized nationally, while also being shown that we must still be comfortable with the nation celebrating one of the worst perpetrators of racial and religious violence in world history. In fact, Columbus’s methods against the Taino were so vile and brutal that he was put in jail for six weeks upon his return to Spain.
Indigenous Peoples Day is an act of resistance against the American romanticization of colonialism, imperialism, and brutal conquest. The celebration felt more genuine when we weren’t forced to share the calendar with a perpetrator of colonial violence. In my opinion, the proclamation of Indigenous Peoples Day was an attempt to pacify Indigenous activists from pursuing further protest of the Columbus Day holiday. President Biden attempting to justify this action by discussing the difficult history of Italian Americans’ plight when they came to America completely missed the mark, much like Columbus did on his way to lands he believed would be India.
Italian Americans are still settlers on these lands, like their other European counterparts. I do not wish to downplay the risk that Italian immigrants took coming to a new world to escape persecution, provide more opportunities to secure the future for their families, and the bullying they had to endure from other immigrants that stole Indigenous lands before them. We all, regardless of race and ethnicity, tend to take great pride in our ancestors and where we come from. However, while playing the game of Oppression Olympics, it can be difficult to stomach that someone may have more of a right to retribution than you. The fact of the matter is, the Original People do. While continuing to occupy Indigenous lands, all settlers should be acknowledging the ancestors of Indigenous People for what they were forced to sacrifice- their lives, lands, and culture- and their contribution to ongoing colonization as “uninvited guests” on Indigenous land. Italian Americans were not enslaved, survivors of mass genocide, or land theft. Indigenous people were, and were sacrificed for your futures. Rent is due.
We can hold the truth that Italian Americans’ ancestors struggled settling on these lands, while also acknowledging that the land was stolen and the original people murdered or pushed into oblivion. Most immigrants that came after the Mayflower descendants were sold the great American Dream and a false sense of liberty for all. Who knows? They might have been met with kindness and compassion had they met Indigenous people first. White supremacy and colonization negatively impact all of us, and these constructs lurked under the birth of this nation. They dripped through the ink of the pen held by the man who wrote the words, “all men are created equal.” There are a number of alternatives to celebrate Italian American heritage. The attachment to celebrating Columbus only began within the past century when Franklin D. Roosevelt made Columbus Day a federal holiday in 1934. The greater majority assure you that Christopher Columbus is not the representation Italian Americans should want. If this is the representation desired, then pride in this sense is pathological and cannot be reasoned with.
The overall discourse about the celebration of Columbus Day is not new, and neither are empty promises and compromises made by the federal government to Indigenous communities. On the day of Indigenous Peoples Day this year, many of us felt a sense of dystopia. As much as I enjoy seeing all of my relatives in their regalia, especially the tiny tots, I was disheartened watching some of my relatives get arrested at our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. for peacefully protesting for clean water. In the same week, more Indigenous activists were arrested at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We are still combating systemic and environmental racism. Our communities are used as fossil fuel dumping grounds. Some non-Indigenous communities have yet to realize that their communities are also becoming dumping grounds for large energy corporations. Per Biden’s statement, our sacrifices for this nation were acknowledged, but our communities are still turned into energy sacrifice zones.
So when will Indigenous People see real action? When will our nation’s leadership realize that pretending to care about the issues that plague our communities like Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit, lack of access to proper health care, food insecurity, and high rates of suicide is not enough to contribute to resolving these issues? We need our power back. We need the sovereignty of our nations respected, and the history of this country taught from our perspective.
Will we ever be able to distance ourselves from the colonial narrative? No, but we can start a new era by discontinuing the celebration of the birth place of genocide and trans-atlantic chattel slavery in this hemisphere. Columbus Day must go, with a note that there is no compromise when it comes to genocide.
Aminah Ghaffar is a Lumbee and African American Indigenous Advocate from Pembroke, NC. She has a BS in Biology from ECU, where she also competed for the track and field team, and a MS in Physiology and Biophysics from Georgetown.