By Jager Robinson and Lindsay Andarakis
The Southampton Union Free School District has proposed eliminating Columbus Day at a board meeting on March 15, which prompted an ongoing debate between Native and Italian Americans to instead honor indigenous people.
Those against what the holiday stands for would prefer the school’s 2016-2017 calendar to recognize the national holiday on October 12, 2016 as “Indigenous People’s Day.” Other cities such as Seattle, Minneapolis, and Albuquerque have officially started celebrating Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day.
The Southampton School Board has already postponed the decision until August but the debate between the Shinnecock Nation and Long Island Italian groups have flared.
“When Columbus came he was not kind to native people, in fact he killed many and quite brutally in fact. Native people do not wish to honor this man,” Beverly Jensen, the Communications Director for the Shinnecock Nation, said.
As much as Jensen presses the issue on removing Columbus Day, she agrees that Italian-Americans deserve a day of recognition.
“They should call it what it is [Italian-American Day] because he didn’t discover America and if we turn Columbus Day into an Italian American Holiday, that’s a wonderful idea,” she said.
The Shinnecock Nation has an 800-acre reservation that falls within the Southampton district. This group presents the strongest opposition to the holiday’s current name but Jensen argues that this is a national issue, as well as a local one.
Dr. Mario Mignone, the director for Italian Studies at Stony Brook University, is a strong advocate for keeping Columbus Day as a national holiday.
“Its symbolic… We were here before you were here. Columbus and all the explorers. [Columbus Day] matters because there has to be some kind of recognition given to what Italians have done for this country,” he said.
In 1992, during the first national push to remove Columbus Day, Mignone held a symposium titled “Columbus: Meeting Of Cultures” to allow for open discussion of the controversy. The new debate has prompted him to return to his statements in 1992 stressing that the hybridization Columbus brought to the new world was his crowning achievement.
“It is a guy who opened doors and created this meeting of cultures. Through these encounters the world was enriched,” Mignone said.
Paul Firbas, the Director of Latin American and Caribbean Center at Stony Brook University, took a break from his sabbatical to weigh in on the debate.
“‘Columbus Day’ could be renamed into something like “Day of the Americas”, stressing the plurality [of the] Americas,” he said.
Although he advises a name change, he says that it is important to remember that Columbus is a symbol for 19th century Italian Americans and that most historical figures images need to be revised.
With a twist to the argument, Lou Gallo, New York State Chairman of the Commission of Social Justice, says that Columbus represents more than his discovery.
“[He] also is representative of values that Americans hold dear; rugged individualism, [and] perseverance,” he said.
Gallo also says that Native Americans should teach their interpretations of Christopher Columbus just not on the second Monday of October.
“Tell it, just don’t tell it on Columbus Day.”