By Nicholas Iovino, Courthouse News
San Francisco joined dozens of other cities on Tuesday in replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a move hailed by some as long overdue but denounced by others as cruel and divisive.
“To take our day away is an insult to our culture,” said Guido Perego, president of the Italian Athletic Club in the city’s traditionally Italian-American North Beach neighborhood. “The city is basically pitting one culture against another.”
The board voted 10-1 to make the change on Tuesday.
San Francisco is not alone. Four states and 55 other cities, including Seattle and Phoenix, have rebranded the federal holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Berkeley, California, was the first U.S. city to make the move in 1992.
Los Angeles County Supervisors voted to make the change October 3, 2017.
Celebrated on the second Monday of October, Columbus Day was declared a federal holiday in 1937. In recent decades, the holiday’s reputation and that of its namesake explorer have become increasingly controversial.
Social activist and historian Howard Zinn dedicated the first chapter of his 1980 book, “A People’s History of the United States,” challenging the popular narrative of Christopher Columbus as a stoic hero who overcame adversity to become the first Western explorer to find the New World.
Zinn cited evidence that Columbus enslaved and killed the “gentle” Native people he encountered in the Caribbean Islands, leading to the mass murder and taking of land from natives across the continent.
“The indisputably horrific things that Christopher Columbus did to the established inhabitants of the Americas with whom he came in contact are facts,” San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, who sponsored the bill to rename Columbus Day, wrote in a Jan. 21 Facebook post.
But Perego says other scholars, including cultural anthropology professor Carol Delaney of Stanford University, have contested Zinn’s portrayal of the Italian explorer, describing him as a devout Christian who told his crew to treat Native people with respect.
“Putting genocide in the same sentence as Columbus is ridiculous,” Perego said. “How are you going to rewrite history about a man who got in a boat, happened to land on this side of the world, and hold him accountable for all actions that happened thereafter?”
Italian Americans who opposed the city’s decision to rebrand Columbus Day call the move divisive, saying Columbus Day is about celebrating Italian American heritage, not one explorer. Twenty years ago, the city’s Italian community renamed its annual Columbus Day parade the Italian Heritage Parade. This year will be the city’s 150th annual parade, traditionally held on the Sunday before Columbus Day.
Cohen said the decision to celebrate Indigenous peoples on that day is not about uplifting one culture at the expense of another.
“The objective of this legislation is to create greater public awareness of the historical experiences and contributions of Native peoples, shifting the focus from Columbus the Conqueror to instead center the people who have experienced immense trauma, disrespect, and invisibility,” Cohen said.
Julia Dondero and Christina Olivolo, members of the city’s Italian American women’s group Le Donne d’ Italia, ticked off a long list of contributions that Italian-Americans have made to San Francisco.
They include including helping to rebuild after the great earthquake and fire of 1906, working in the city’s historic fishing fleet, creating the traditional Italian seafood stew Cioppino, founding the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company and being home to the family of baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and Bank of America founder Amadeo P. Giannini.
“I don’t think anyone is saying do this because we deserve this and they don’t,” Dondero said. “San Francisco is such a forward-looking city with a rich history. It should be able to reflect on the past and move forward and not ignore this rich Italian history.”
But evidence that Columbus ordered native people to be killed and enslaved, coupled with the atrocities that followed his arrival to the Western Hemisphere, have led many to denounce the federal holiday as a celebration of genocide.
“I think correcting our history and the history of the native people that were brutally slaughtered and killed off by disease who were in this land prior to an Italian explorer coming and quote unquote discovering the land that people had been on for a very a long time is very overdue,” San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen said at Tuesday’s meeting.
The legislation will not impact any city funding that supports Italian-American heritage celebrations on the second weekend of October.
Dondero said the city’s decision to rename Columbus Day will not stop the Italian-American community from holding annual festivities in October this year.
“This will not stop us,” Dondero said. “We’re still going to have the Italian-American heritage parade.”
In 1968, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed legislation declaring the fourth Friday in September “Native American Day.” In 1990, President George H.W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November “National Native American Indian Heritage Month.”