Hol­i­day de­bate be­fore coun­cil

Bill would re­name Colum­bus Day for in­dige­nous peo­ples

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Yvonne Wenger

A Bal­ti­more City Coun­cil pro­posal to strip Christo­pher Colum­bus of his annual hol­i­day and re­name the day for in­dige­nous peo­ple has sparked a com­mu­nity de­bate.

Stu­dents at City Neigh­bors Char­ter School in North­east Bal­ti­more pe­ti­tioned the coun­cil to re­name the hol­i­day. They said they were tired of “mis­truths” about the con­tro­ver­sial Ital­ian ex­plorer, who did not discover the land now known as the United States of Amer­ica but is linked to the start of the transat­lantic slave trade.

Yet in places such as Lit­tle Italy, the day is less about Colum­bus and more about cel­e­brat­ing Ital­ian-Amer­i­cans, their cul­ture and their ef­forts to as­sim­i­late over gen­er­a­tions.

The coun­cil plans to take a fi­nal vote on the leg­is­la­tion Dec. 5. Joseph Ben­jamin Gardella hopes of­fi­cials first stop to con­sider what might be lost.

“Lit­tle Italys are start­ing to thin out in cities across the coun­try. I say give this to them, and let’s have a con­ver­sa­tion,” Gardella said as he filled or­ders be­hind the counter at his Lit­tle Italy restau­rant, Joe Benny’s. “I don’t think there’s been enough talk yet.”

Out­side the restau­rant at South High and Fawn streets, “126th Colum­bus Cel­e­bra­tion” is em­bla­zoned on pave­ment nearby. Gardella said the annual pa­rade and fes­tiv­i­ties help keep the neigh­bor­hood vi­brant.

Coun­cil­man Bran­don Scott — who filed the bill af­ter the stu­dents re­quested it — tried to soften the blow by re­brand­ing the hol­i­day as “In­dige­nous Peo­ples’ and Ital­ianAmer­i­cans’ Day.” The coun­cil en­dorsed the

com­pro­mise, vot­ing 12-2 this month to give the bill pre­lim­i­nary ap­proval.

“It cel­e­brates both,” Scott said. “It does not dis­en­fran­chise any­one or have the in­dige­nous com­mu­nity and oth­ers be wor­ried about us cel­e­brat­ing some­one who de­stroyed their cul­ture, from their point of view.

“It also does not say the Ital­ian-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity does not mat­ter. It is com­pro­mise down the mid­dle.”

A national move­ment to change the hol­i­day has been un­der­way for nearly 30 years. Al­bu­querque, N.M., Port­land, Ore., and St. Paul, Minn., are among the cities that have ex­changed Colum­bus Day for In­dige­nous Peo­ples’ Day. South Dakota cel­e­brates Na­tive Amer­i­cans’ Day, and Hawaii rec­og­nizes the hol­i­day as Dis­cov­er­ers’ Day.

Berke­ley, Calif., was among the first to make the change, swap­ping out Colum­bus Day in 1992.

Colum­bus landed on an is­land in the Ba­hamas in 1492. He later ex­plored other Caribbean is­lands and Cen­tral Amer­ica. His­to­ri­ans say Colum­bus reached the New World on Oct. 12, al­though he never ar­rived at the land that is now the United States.

The 15th-cen­tury Ital­ian ex­plorer is tied to the spread of dis­ease, the initiation of the transat­lantic slave trade and to vi­o­lent acts com­mit­ted against peo­ple na­tive to the lands he searched.

Colum­bus Day was first des­ig­nated by Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt in 1937.

Peter French, a City Neigh­bors so­cial stud­ies teacher, said his sixth-, sev­enth- and eighth-grade stu­dents were moved to ac­tion af­ter read­ing di­ary en­tries writ­ten by Colum­bus and his con­tem­po­raries. The stu­dents eval­u­ated other hol­i­days named for in­di­vid­u­als or groups — such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Pres­i­dents Day — and felt the ex­plorer did not de­serve the same honor.

French, who has taught in Bal­ti­more for 24 years, said the stu­dents felt it was “time to rec­og­nize and con­sider the truth, in­stead of con­tin­u­ing a story that is sim­ply not true.”

John Curl, a mem­ber of a com­mit­tee that con­sid­ered the name change in Berke­ley, said com­mem­o­rat­ing in­dige­nous peo­ple al­lows a com­mu­nity to spot­light re­spect for the Earth. He said it also teaches peo­ple how to live in har­mony with the nat­u­ral world rather than cel­e­brate a cul­ture that “de­cided to go some­where else and take over other peo­ples’ land and re­sources.”

“Colum­bus was re­ally not a role model,” Curl said. “The Ital­ian-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity has Galileo and da Vinci — they don’t need Colum­bus.”

Fight­ing to pre­serve the tra­di­tional ob­ser­vance of Colum­bus Day is the National Ital­ian Amer­i­can Foun­da­tion. John M. Vi­ola is the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s pres­i­dent.

“The cel­e­bra­tion of Colum­bus Day for Ital­ian-Amer­i­cans sig­ni­fies the enor­mous pride we share for our rich Ital­ian cul­ture, her­itage and out­stand­ing achieve­ments,” Vi­ola said in a state­ment re­leased in April. The Colorado leg­is­la­ture had just re­jected an ef­fort to abol­ish the hol­i­day in that state.

“It’s a day when we honor those who have come be­fore us — our par­ents and grand­par­ents. They worked to make Ameri- ca great. … We be­lieve in cel­e­brat­ing all the won­der­ful cul­tures that make Amer­ica the great­est na­tion on Earth, but not cel­e­brat­ing one at the ex­pense of the other.”

Un­der Scott’s bill, the name of the hol­i­day would change on all of­fi­cial city com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pub­li­ca­tions. It de­fines in­dige­nous peo­ples as “the many peo­ples in­hab­it­ing North Amer­ica be­fore its col­o­niza­tion by Euro­pean set­tlers.”

Scott said the stu­dents told him “they were tired of them­selves and their gen­er­a­tion be­ing told mis­truths” about Colum­bus.

“This is im­por­tant that we can un­der­stand each other and each other’s points of views and meet some­where in the mid­dle so we can op­er­ate as a great so­ci­ety,” Scott said.

Coun­cil­man James B. Kraft, who rep­re­sents Lit­tle Italy and other South­east Bal­ti­more neigh­bor­hoods, urged the coun­cil to give the pub­lic more time to weigh in on the change. He noted the bill was in­tro­duced in late Oc­to­ber.

“I would hope the coun­cil would not rush through this piece of leg­is­la­tion but would take it to the next term,” Kraft said be­fore the coun­cil’s re­cent vote. “The ob­jec­tive can ul­ti­mately be ac­com­plished, but there should be suf­fi­cient time to al­low ev­ery­one’s voice to be heard be­fore such a se­ri­ous and dra­matic change is made.”

Coun­cil­man Carl Stokes spoke up from his seat, say­ing: “We’ve been wait­ing 600 years.”

If the bill does not pass at the coun­cil’s Dec. 5 meet­ing, the leg­is­la­tion will have to be rein­tro­duced af­ter the new coun­cil is sworn in Dec. 8.

Kraft voted against the bill, as did Coun­cil­man Eric T. Costello. Coun­cil­woman Mary Pat Clarke ab­stained.

Cyd Wolf is push­ing for the coun­cil to re­con­sider be­fore tak­ing the fi­nal vote. She owns a Lit­tle Italy restau­rant and cabaret space, Germano’s Pi­at­tini, with her hus­band, Germano Fabi­ani. The cou­ple also co-founded Bal­ti­more’s Madon­nari Arts Fes­ti­val in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the or­ga­niz­ers of the Colum­bus pa­rade.

Wolf and oth­ers say Colum­bus Day is much more than a cel­e­bra­tion of the ex­plorer, and that re­brand­ing the day is an at­tempt to re­write history.

Wolf said the pro­posal sug­gests that the “atroc­i­ties ex­pe­ri­enced by the Na­tive Amer­i­cans dur­ing colo­nial­ism were exclusive to the Ital­ians — which is not the case. The Bri­tish, Dutch, French, Span­ish and Por­tuguese all came and con­quered.”

Plans are un­der­way to hold a sym­po­sium in Lit­tle Italy next Oc­to­ber to dis­cuss the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Colum­bus, Wolf said. She and oth­ers want the coun­cil to add a day to honor in­dige­nous peo­ple or give them dual recog­ni­tion with Colum­bus on the sec­ond Monday in Oc­to­ber.

“Ours is a colo­nial past: Who we are to­day and who we will be to­mor­row demon­strates our growth as a com­mu­nity,” Wolf said.

“It baf­fles me that any­one can think it is right or nec­es­sary to rec­og­nize one eth­nic group by usurp­ing an hon­ored his­toric hol­i­day of an­other eth­nic group.”

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