Some communities—including Portland, where I live—have swapped Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples Day.
And while the two tributes aren’t quite equivalent—one commemorates an individual credited with the sighting of the New World, while the other recognizes Native peoples of the New World—it is worth considering the role propaganda plays in the construction of the Italian and the Indian.
I’ll take a look at events that led up to the Columbus Day proclamation that arose from racist attitudes, and how, at the same time, Native Americans face similar racist demons.
While Italians were able to harness the public narrative and smooth out racist wrinkles, Native Americans found their narratives stolen or silenced.
Columbus Day Springs from a Murder
Columbus Day in the United States has long focussed on the merchant and mapmaker from Genoa—Cristoforo Colombo—thanks to the ingenuity of some Italian-Americans to remake their image.
Italians and Sicilians who emigrated to the New World were stereotyped as cruel and shifty, according to reporter Lakshmi Gandhi.
Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, waves of emigrants to North America from the Mediterranean were “sometimes shut out of schools, movie houses and labor unions, or consigned to church pews set aside for black people. They were described in the press as ‘swarthy’, ‘kinky haired’ members of a criminal race and derided in the streets with epithets like ‘dago’ [and] ‘guinea,’ ” according to Brent Staples, writing for the New York Times.
One law enforcer gained popularity in the 1880s for capturing Giuseppe Esposito, an Italian criminal, in New Orleans, where sentiments against Italians ran high.
David Hennessy promised to clean up the city when he was appointed police chief, but a year later, in October 1890, he was shot by a gang while walking home from work and died.
Although no one saw the gang members, hundreds of Italians were arrested for the murder, followed by months of trials.
Meantime, not long after Hennessy was shot in New Orleans, a bone-cold winter held the Northern U.S. in a frigid grip.
Wounded Knee Springs from Murders
That December, a band of Miniconjou Sioux fled the Cheyenne River village and headed south for Pine Ridge, hoping to escape the troops and find shelter with Sitting Bull.
The US government resolved to divide the Sioux Nation into small portions, and sent troops to enforce their authority.
The Miniconjou—about 350 children, women and men—was less than a day’s journey to Pine Ridge when they crossed paths with the Seventh Calvary on Sunday, December 28, at Wounded Knee Creek.
Spotted Elk—the Miniconjou elder and leader—and Major Samuel M. Whitside agreed to an uneasy truce as nightfall approached.
In the morning, someone fired a shot, and by noon, many were dead: 250 Miniconjou and 25 soldiers.
The Sioux murdered at Wounded Knee were shoved into mass graves and covered with dirt and snow.
Italians Rewrite History
Back in New Orleans, numerous trials were held for the Italians charged with Hennessy’s murder.
Court proceedings resulted in acquittals and mistrials, and by March, some 19 men had been indicted in the police chief’s death and were held in Parish Prison.
On Saturday, March 14, a group of citizens gathered on Canal Street and marched to the prison.
Guns and ammunition were handed out along the path, and hundreds of bystanders joined the throng.
By the time the mob surrounded the prison, thousands were in the crowd.
Prison doors were bashed open and, one by one, eleven men were “riddled with buckshot,” according to the New York Times.
In response, the Italian government cut diplomatic ties with the United States, Staples writes.
The US and Italy were reported “on the brink of war” when President Benjamin Harrison soothed relations by proclaiming October 12 Columbus Day in 1892.
Italian-American activists seized the moment to rewrite history “by casting Columbus as the first immigrant” and granting Italian-Americans “a formative role” in the nation-building narrative.
But it would take decades for the United States to declare a national holiday for the explorer from Genoa.
The Knights of Columbus (“Catholic men building a bridge back to faith,” according to the group’s website) lobbied the Roosevelt Administration, and in 1934, the day was cemented as a federal holiday.
While the emigrant narrative was reshaped to honor Italian-Americans—specifically Columbus—stereotypes of the savage and uncivilized Indian remained.
A Copper Mine Claims Native Narratives and Territories
A company began courting a small community in Northern Wisconsin to build a copper mine a few decades ago.
The mining company sloughed off the image of the greedy invader hungry for the resource-rich New World and instead borrowed the holistic worldview of Native tribes.
The mine leavened its corporate image with an homage to Chief Seattle.
“We too come before you…as stewards of the earth,” a spokesman promised the crowd at a public hearing on the mine’s construction.
“We will march through history arm-in-arm with Chief Seattle, Gandhi, Rachel Carson and Martin Luther King.”
The company —named the Flambeau Copper Mine yet often called the Ladysmith mine—took control of the narrative, and shunned the Native tribes whose traditional lands would house the mine.
The company disparaged the concerns of water pollution and degradation of the nearby forests brought by local tribes, who were framed as “stuck in the stone age.”
The slogan Partners in Progress served as the brand for the mine, and buttons and bumper-stickers were distributed free of charge to residents.
The mining company wooed citizens of Ladysmith with goodies and gifts: buying a brand-new firetruck and sending homemade cakes to local soldiers fighting in the Middle East.
They even created a tabloid called the Flambeau News that was inserted in the local newspaper.
The tabloid featured a Good Neighbor spotlight, letters from Gulf War soldiers, and—naturally—updates on the mine.
Like so many settlers before them, the mining company not only tried to silence the Native people who opposed the mine—they poached a Native narrative of environmentalism to reframe the story.
While replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day offers no provision that folks will attend to racist demons and shellacked narratives, it does offer an opportunity to reflect on past and current disparagement of Native American peoples.
As my Eeko (grandmother) said, who survived tuberculosis, alcoholism and the Osage murders, “we are still here.”
Lead image: The North Platte semi-weekly tribune. (North Platte, Neb.), 25 Feb. 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.