WASHINGTON – Governors and city councils in some parts of the country are ditching Christopher Columbus Day and using the three day weekend to celebrate people that they see as the Italian explorer’s victims. In Washington, where no such change has taken place, ceremonies continued as usual Monday to celebrate the man credited with connecting Europe and America some six centuries ago.
Diplomats from Italy and the Bahamas offered laudatory yet differing takes on Christopher Columbus, the man, at the annual Columbus Day Ceremony at the site of the Italian explorer’s memorial, just a few blocks north of Capitol Hill.
“We don’t say discovered because you can’t discover something that has names,” said Eugene Newry, the Bahamian ambassador to the United States. Instead, Newry called Columbus’s contact with the Americas an “encounter.”
“I admired Columbus on an academic level,” Newry said.
While not forgetting the impact on indigenous populations, Columbus Day has special significance for Italian-Americans, said Catherine Flumiani, a counselor at the Italian embassy. Flumani used the occasion to talk about the U.S.-Italy relationship a week before Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visits the White House.
Columbus Day, which became a federal holiday in 1937, has recently become the target of increasing criticism over the explorer’s mistreatment of people who would come to be called Native Americans. Some cities like Denver and Phoenix have renamed Columbus Day as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
Last Thursday Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin issued a proclamation joining those cities by establishing an Indigenous Peoples’ Day in his state to “encourage all Vermonters to recognize the sacrifice and contributions of the First Peoples of this land.”
Some city councils like Cincinnati and Oklahoma City have outright rejected proposals to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, while others including Chicago have struck middle ground and ordered both traditions to be celebrated.
Patrick Korten, a board member of the National Christopher Columbus Association, said he is not opposed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the local level, but would not support removing Columbus day as a national holiday.
“Columbus was not a saint; he was a sinner like the rest of us. But he was extremely courageous,” Korten said in a phone interview after the event in Washington. “It befits all of us to know more about Columbus, what he accomplished, what his legacy was and how important it was to unite those formally two totally disconnected civilizations for the rest of the world.”
The ceremony included a high school essay contest which was won by a student who paralleled the courage of Columbus with another controversial explorer, Charles Lindbergh – the first pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and also an outspoken Nazi sympathizer without mentioning either of their checkered pasts.