CLEVELAND — Some call it Indigenous Peoples’ Day, while others call it Columbus Day. The Monday holiday in mid-October, traditionally called Columbus Day, is surrounded by controversy due to the legacy of the man for whom it’s named.
Indigenous Peoples' Day
“I just don't understand what there is to celebrate,” Marlys Rambeau said about Columbus Day.
To Rambeau, chairperson for the Lake Erie Native American Council, the celebration of Columbus Day is a symbol of her Native culture being erased and ignored.
“We're here all the time. We're here 24/7,” Rambeau said. “Our presence is here. And unfortunately, we are just not acknowledged by the general public, unless it's something that catches their attention like Thanksgiving,” which her community calls a harvest dinner because it originally celebrated the harvest.
She believes Indigenous Peoples’ Day should be celebrated instead of Columbus Day and that “the whole Christopher Columbus myth just needs to be put to rest. I know it upsets a lot of people, but we get the short end of the stick on everything.”
Rambeau said the Native community in Ohio is not indigenous to Ohio; rather, “we were forced to come here, or our parents were forced to come here.”
She highlighted the contributions of Native Americans.
“If it wasn't for the Natives, the Pilgrims would not have survived,” Rambeau said.
She noted that the U.S. government is based on the Haudenosaunee government, but that Indigenous people are not acknowledged for that or for many other contributions.
“So many cities and counties and bodies of water in the state of Ohio are named or their names are derived from Native Americans that were originally in this area,” Rambeau said.
Seeing people still celebrating Columbus Day is not something she or others in her community like to see.
“They kidnapped our women. They slaughtered our people. It's just a narrative,” Rambeau said. “We don't have a say in how we are represented in that entire narrative. We're secondary players to the whole discovery of Columbus, and there is a saying that, you know, the winners are the ones who write the history. We obviously were not the winners.”
Asked her reaction to the City of Cleveland celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day in August, Rambeau said, “It was like the city was throwing us a bone to make us be quiet.”
While Rambeau said she can understand why the Italian community is proud of Columbus, she wants to make one thing clear: “That's good for them and bad for us, and it signifies basically the downfall of our entire nation of people.”
She said, “It's not that hard to give us, acknowledge us for a day, acknowledge us for what our people suffered.”
Rambeau, who wore red Monday to bring awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women, said the community was looking forward to getting back to work, holding culture classes, and educating the public.
Some members of the Italian American community believe Columbus Day should still be celebrated.
“Columbus's epic journey planted the seed for the great American experiment, in that it opened the door to over 500 years of worldwide immigration by people’s coming to America to seek a better life for their families,” said Basil Russo, national president of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. That's Columbus's legacy, and that's the legacy that we're fighting to preserve.”
Russo said Columbus is important not only to Italian-Americans but to other immigrant groups, as a symbol of their “struggle to overcome bias and prejudice in this country, as have so many other groups been confronted with when they first arrived in this country.”
He said the Italian-American community “is extremely upset about the attacks on Columbus Day and Columbus statues.”
“We believe that every group that came to this country contributed something meaningful to America, that they have a right to be proud of and that they have a right to celebrate, and we respect other groups’ right to do that,” Russo said. “And we expect them to acknowledge and respect our right to celebrate our contributions to America as well. When people resort to violence and hatred and confrontation, it doesn't serve to promote harmony within our country.”
He urged people to work together and respect one another.
“We need to honor each other's traditions. And we need to talk more, to better understand what each other's respective positions are so we can learn how to cooperate with one another,” Russo said.
Election Day instead
In the city of Sandusky, Columbus Day is no longer a holiday, as of last year. Instead, the city made the decision to make Election Day a holiday for its approximately 250 city employees.
"In giving up Columbus Day, we were able to move on from what had been a slightly more controversial holiday, and do one that we thought was really important for democracy,” said Eric Wobser, Sandusky’s city manager.
He said the decision and subsequent media attention helped open up a conversation and dialogue about participation in democracy and access to voting.
“We just continue to hope to be a part of that dialogue to increase access to voting in democracy,” Wobser said.
Wobser said a number of other cities and individuals are trying to accomplish something similar in their communities, while a couple of others formally did what Sandusky did in dropping Columbus Day and adding Election Day.
While there were Italian-Americans who expressed concern to the city, Wobser said it helped them start a “deeper conversation” about how to continue celebrating the city’s Italian-American heritage without having it be about Columbus Day specifically.
And, while Wobser said they didn’t hear from many people about the Indigenous community, he said the city has “worked really hard through other policies to make sure that we’re doing what we can to continue to be inclusive and celebrate our diversity in Sandusky,” including welcoming documented and undocumented immigrants and passing anti-discrimination legislation for the LGBTQ community.
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