Is ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’ a long-overdue change, or political correctness run amok?

As Seattle's mayor signs a measure adopting Indigenous People's Day into law Monday, some Italian-Americans in the city says the new law denigrates their culture's accomplishments.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor / File
A 13-foot-tall sculpture of Christopher Columbus by Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo was posed 70 feet off the ground by Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi near New York's Central Park, Sept. 25, 2012.

As far as paid days off go, Columbus Day has long been the most controversial.

The historically problematic holiday – Columbus never actually set foot on the continental US ­– has made an increasing number of people wince, given the enslavement and genocide of Native American people that followed in the wake of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Also, the neighborhood wasn't exactly empty when he arrived in 1492.

Seattle and Minneapolis are celebrating their first Indigenous Peoples’ Day today – the latest in a number of cities to choose Columbus Day as the day to remember the harm done to indigenous tribes during colonization.

Berkeley, Calif., was the first US city to change the name of the holiday in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage. South Dakota was the earliest adopter in the country: The state has celebrated Native American Day since 1990.

“[Columbus] was one of the first Europeans to get to the American continent, but there was a lot of history that came after that in terms of the wiping out of native people,” California state Sen. Lori Hancock, who was mayor of Berkeley in 1992, told Time Magazine.  “It just didn’t seem appropriate. It seemed like a reemphasizing of history and recognizing that to be very ethnocentric really diminishes us all.” 

Problem solved? Not exactly – at least not in Seattle, where a backlash has built.

“Depending on whom you asked, the name change was either a long-overdue recognition that a genocidal, directionally challenged sailor doesn’t really warrant a postal holiday, or an affront to Italian Americans and the American tradition of discovery,” writes Sarah Kaplan in The Washington Post

In Seattle, where the measure passed the city council unanimously, some Italian-Americans are arguing the decision to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same day as Columbus Day denigrates the accomplishments of their culture.

“We empathize with the death and destruction of the Native Americans,” activist Ralph Fascitelli said Thursday during a news conference. “But we think right now this is almost going too far in terms of political correctness.”  

However, the Geneose explorer was pretty candid about his aims to enslave the tribes he found in the Bahamas, including the sexual enslavement of girls as young as nine, Dora Hasan Mekouar writes in Voice of America.

“They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features….They do not bear arms, and do not know them,” he wrote in his journal about the native Arawaks, Lucayans, and Tainos, according to Voice of America. “They would make fine servants….With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” 

In a majority of states today, people are at work and kids are in class, just like any other Monday. Only 23 states, plus the District of Columbia, recognize the holiday. Hawaii celebrates Discoverers’ Day, in honor of the Polynesian explorers. Alaskans will be waiting five days to celebrate Alaska Day on Oct. 18. Oregon just takes a pass.

“It looks like Columbus Day may be about to set sail into irrelevancy, but before saying good riddance we should think about its replacement,” writes Carrie Gibson, author of the November book, “Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day,” at The Daily Beast.

In her opinion piece, “Keep the Holiday, Lose Columbus,” Ms. Gibson argues that a “not-Columbus Day” could commemorate the shared history of the Americas, as well as the contributions of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, which currently are not recognized with a federal holiday.

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