Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day here in the United States (and possibly other countries), though in a lot of places the holiday is still known as Christopher Columbus Day. As you might suspect, it’s a controversial time. Columbus Day was originally meant to commemorate the “discovery” of America way back when, even though there were already roughly 1 million people living here at the time. After Columbus’ arrival in 1492, the landscape of the continent changed. The subsequent colonization of the continent brought an inordinate amount of misery for its native population, and the horrific legacy of slavery can be traced right back to Columbus and his crew. There are so many accounts of Columbus’ atrocities that I don’t need to go into them here. Suffice it to say, he was not the brilliant, forward-thinking discoverer history had lionized him to be.
These days it’s widely acknowledged that he is not a man worth celebrating, but there are different ideas about what to do with the holiday. Many Italian-Americans use the holiday to celebrate their cultural story and the many other Italians and Americans who’ve had a hand in shaping it. And a lot of them don’t feel it’s appropriate to disregard the contributions of Italian-Americans or refuse to celebrate this particular flavor of the melting pot because this observance has been tied to Columbus for so long.
In the circles I run around in, it’s a lot more popular to spend today boosting the voices of indigenous people around the world. On just about every continent, indigenous populations have suffered through the collective trauma of colonization and genocide — apocalyptic events that they’re still struggling through the effects of today. In the United States especially, the American cultural memory seems to slide away from the great harm that has come to Native Americans in the 530 years since Columbus’ arrival. Because of that, we’re still unequipped to deal with the consequences of our history and our Native American brothers and sisters continue to suffer under its burdens.
It’s most important to remember this today. Columbus Day had been celebrated in the United States for over 200 years and it’s been a federal holiday for half a century. That’s 50 years of the federal government celebrating a genocidal charlatan for wiping out entire peoples. Even though the conversation is turning towards recognition of Columbus’ horrible deeds, there has still never been a public apology to indigenous Americans for what has been happening since the arrival of the first settlers. And there has been far too little attention to the problems manifesting today as a direct result of that previous treatment. Native Americans deal with much greater rates of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, access to legal rights, proper health care, police brutality, lack of educational opportunities, voting rights, and cultural erasure and appropriation.
By contrast, Italian-Americans have far more access to the American Dream. The culture of Italy is not in danger of disappearing forever, and the lands of Italian ancestors are still under the stewardship of its descendants. Columbus Day is still a nationally-recognized federal holiday, and while cultural stereotyping is a problem (name an Italian-American story that doesn’t feature organized crime), it is nowhere near on the level of appropriation and stereotyping endured by Native Americans.
A friend of mine mentioned that a sort of “reverse” cultural appropriation has been happening with Columbus Day, and I felt compelled to respond to that. I know this might come across as virtue-signaling or white-knighting, but I think it’s important to speak up when there’s a chance to exchange an understanding like this. Cultural appropriation has become one of those immensely controversial ideas, especially when it comes to Native Americans, and laying out what we mean when we say it can help us develop a shared language to talk through these difficult topics.
Cultural appropriation is simply the use of a culture’s traditions and practices outside of the context those traditions and practices belong in. It happens most often when a dominant, colonialist culture takes elements of a minority culture without proper understanding of them. With Native Americans, this happens with spiritual practices, clothing, tools, and rituals of ceremonial significance, ideas, language, even places. Native Americans have been very clear about these transgressions for quite some time now, but have been widely dismissed in the past. Even in the furry fandom, Native American concepts, clothing items, ceremonial tools, and significant symbols have been stripped from the appropriate contexts to apply a veneer of spirituality to art, stories, and neo-religious movements. In our own community, Native American pleas to be more respectful and accurate have been met with denials, deflection, and outright scorn.
Reverse cultural appropriation is not something that actually happens. For example, if a Native American is wearing make-up, it is NOT reverse cultural appropriation because there’s no sacred, culturally-specific context being stripped out by its use. Many members of minority groups are forced to adopt the dominant culture’s standard of beauty in order to be taken seriously; minority cultures have done this throughout history as a means of survival.
Minority groups are far less likely to appropriate the dominant culture because by default we’re all aware of the context in which things are used. Also, the backlash that minorities would receive by intentionally appropriating an element of culture to highlight what that would look like has been swift and sure. Are there elements of Italian-American culture that have been adopted and twisted outside of its historical context? How have the appropriation of these elements harmed Italian-American culture or hampered its assimilation in the American fabric? Are Italian-Americans more likely to face discrimination, violence, or other harm through these actions? What are the consequences?
These are the kinds of questions we should be asking when we talk about whether or not something is cultural appropriation. For example, minority groups tend to be treated very differently when engaging in an element of their culture that’s been appropriated then a member of the dominant culture. Look at the way black American hairstyles are co-opted by celebrities as “trendy”, but the black Americans who wear them every day are more likely to be kicked out of school or denied employment for doing the same thing. Or how TikTok influencers are monetizing dances created by largely-ignored or mocked black Americans. That same level of harm doesn’t happen when a Native American wears make-up.
While there may be some erasure of the legacy of Italian-American culture due to the shifting attitudes of Columbus Day, it does not compare to the history of erasure suffered by Native Americans for hundreds of years — nor does it compare to the erasure of the very real problems our Native American neighbors are suffering right now. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a very small step towards addressing this cultural and institutional failure; it’s worth having a much more dominant part of American culture take a back seat for a while.
One thought on “Christopher Columbus Ain’t Shit”
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