For decades, American schoolchildren have been taught a version of history that paints an incomplete picture of the impact Christopher Columbus’ voyages had on the world. He was portrayed as something of a conquering hero, whose “discovery” of the New World paved the way for the eventual settlement of the region by Europeans, leading to what would eventually result in the creation of the United States of America.
While not entirely untrue, that narrative leaves out some of the less-comfortable aspects of the story. For example, that Columbus and his men, and later explorers, enslaved and killed untold numbers of natives; brought diseases that wiped out entire populations in some areas; and laid the groundwork for a cultural and societal framework that, to this day, marginalizes Native Americans or, outside of the U.S., the indigenous populations in those countries.
Celebrating Columbus Day, therefore, can be seen by some as a continuation of marginalizing those groups, and indeed, even celebrating that marginalization.
In the Windy City, the days of celebrating Columbus, at least in the city’s public schools, are coming to an end.
In a 5-2 decision, the Chicago Board of Education this week voted to retire Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day, which will be celebrated this year on October 12.
In addition to the name change, school officials will be working to come up with a curriculum that seeks to tell the entire story of Columbus’ voyages, including their impact on native cultures, according to Chicago’s WGN-TV.
School Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland points out that about 11,000 of the school system’s 355,000 students are Native Americans.
“In addition to our indigenous students in CPS, more than 80% of our students are the descendants of survivors of European settler colonialism. I think this is important for all of our school communities and I think it’s the right thing to do now,” she said.
Some Italian Americans in the city, however, are furious, although the nation of Italy as we know it didn’t exist at the time of Columbus’ voyages. Columbus was from Genoa, in what is now considered part of Italy.
“Go ahead and have your damn Indigenous Peoples Day. Just don’t have it on Columbus Day,” said Alderman Nick Sposato.
Similarly, Sergio Giangrande, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, called the decision “a slap in the face of the more than 500-thousand Italian Americans in Chicago, and the 135-million Italians worldwide.”