An Italian American Perspective on Indigenous Peoples Day

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Testimony submitted at Wellesley Advisory Committee Meeting on January 22, 2020 by Heather Leavell, Co-Founder of Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day.

Dear Advisory Committee Members,

I am a person of Italian descent and a co-founder of Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day. We formed this group to amplify the voices of Italians who feel no pride in the celebration of Christopher Columbus in public dialogue around renaming Columbus Day.

Our group has written a statement in support of Indigenous Peoples Day that describes the ways in which we, as Italian Americans, honor the legacy of our ancestors by advocating for the truthful telling of history and the recognition of Indigenous resilience. After having formed only last fall, nearly 250 Italian Americans have signed our statement, and that number continues to grow. Included in our membership are the following elected officials: Representatives Carmine Gentile, Jack Patrick Lewis, and Lindsay Sabadosa; Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone; and Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern.

We truly empathize with Italian Americans who feel that the prospect of renaming Columbus Day means the loss of the hard-fought acknowledgment that we deserve to exist in this country. It was not long ago that our people experienced the trauma of discrimination, marginalization, and even physical violence. My great grandfather, Ermelinto Marrano had to pretend to be Irish on job applications to even be considered for employment. As a child in the 1950s and 60s, my mother remembers feeling ostracized whenever the family ventured out of the confines of their Italian neighborhood in Buffalo. Dehumanizing experiences such as these are still fresh in the minds of many of our parents and grandparents.

But, thanks to their tremendous perseverance, we now enjoy recognition and status in America. We are represented in almost every major institution in this country. Our cuisine, language and traditions are widely respected, and our entertainers, authors, and artists are household names. In Massachusetts, the whole month of October is officially recognized as a celebration of Italian American heritage. The knowledge – that we not only have the right to exist in this country, but also that our contributions have lasting value and impact – has been crucial to our healing process.

Recognition and status are not privileges afforded to Native people, however. Studies show that they are essentially invisible in our society. This perception is caused by racial stereotypes that dehumanize them; white Americans’ lack of interaction with them; biased history taught in schools (like Columbus “discovered” America); and insufficient curricula on past and present Indigenous cultures. For many Native peoples, the celebration of a man responsible for the genocide of their ancestors is another painful reminder of the ways in which they continue to be made invisible.

As Italian Americans, we feel we have a responsibility to use the platform our parents and grandparents have given us to ensure that we are not repeating the same patterns of discrimination that they endured. The existence of Columbus Day gives us a special opportunity to model self-awareness and empathy. By advocating for the renaming of the holiday, we assert that Indigenous peoples also have a right to exist and to heal.

We believe that a day that celebrates Indigenous resilience is far more truthful and uplifting than one that honors a man who is no more worthy of a holiday than Hitler. By renaming Columbus Day we recognize the diverse histories and cultures of Indigenous peoples and their important contributions to society and to Mother Earth. We correct false histories, begin to make amends for past atrocities, and create an environment where healing can begin. We fight for this change not to erase our own history, but to learn and grow from it. We proudly follow the example of the many Italian Americans who have fought, and continue to fight, for human rights for all.

Some Italian Americans believe that a suitable compromise would be to celebrate both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day simultaneously, but we simply cannot celebrate the perpetrator alongside the victims. That solution prioritizes our comfort over what Indigenous peoples need and deserve – a day that celebrates them, while also demonstrating our commitment to the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable work of learning the real history of our country.

Since the 1970s, Indigenous peoples have been teaching us why Columbus Day is harmful and asking for change. At this juncture, only you have the power to help Indigenous Peoples Day become a reality in Wellesley. We ask that you please open your hearts, listen to their voices, and honor their request.

Heather Leavell
Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day