Italian Heritage Perspectives on Columbus Day: Indigenous Peoples Day Forces Us to Confront Truth About Columbus

From the July/August 2018 PNL #861

by Cindy Squillace

This piece was originally published in syracuse.com, April 2, 2018

The Syracuse City School Board recently held a public forum to hear opinions about changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. There were people who spoke about the pros and cons of doing this and I would like to share my viewpoint.

I recently retired as a student assistance counselor for high school students in the SCSD. I worked at both Corcoran and ITC. I am a 40-year resident of the City of Syracuse, parent of three now grown children who attended city schools from k-12th grade, and currently have relatives attending city schools.

I am also a proud person of Italian descent, as is my husband. I write to you today wearing all of these hats, each important in shaping my beliefs and values.

As a licensed mental health counselor, a mentor and a mom, I strongly believe that our young people should be taught the full history of the settlement of our country.

Through my school-based programs, I spoke with many students who arrived in the U.S. with refugee status. Many were healing from horrible violence and sometimes the attempted genocide of their people, which led their families to seek shelter here in the United States. They questioned me about the founding of this country. When learning history, they could read between the lines, and many identified with what happened to the native people here and all over the Americas with racism, forced assimilation and genocide. This began with Christopher Columbus. His own journals speak of the cruelty, violence and racism with which he met the friendly Arawak people of the Caribbean Islands, where he first landed. It is estimated that within two years after Columbus' arrival, through murder, mutilation and suicide, nearly half of the Arawak people on Haiti were dead.

Having been raised with the myth and idealized version of Columbus, it is hard to face the truth. But it is better for all of us to be taught the truth and find ways to repair the damage than to pretend it didn't happen or that it was too long ago to do anything about it. The story does not have to end there!

We can take a step, a small step, toward repairing the wounds, a step that over 50 other cities and school boards have taken.

By changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day on the school calendar, we can take this step to acknowledge the wrongs and honor the considerable contributions our neighbors, the people of the Onondaga Nation and many other indigenous peoples have given to all of us.

Imagine the pain our many native students and their families in the Syracuse school district face every year when our school district celebrates the man whose arrival brought about such devastation.

My grandparents came here from Calabria, Italy, to escape poverty and tyranny. I have many, many things to cherish and celebrate about my Italian heritage -- great artists, music, philosophy and, of course, great food and the love of life! My family and I do not celebrate Columbus as a great Italian hero. Rather we see him as just a man, an adventurous man, in the paid service of royalty; royalty who expected him to bring back riches at any cost. And what a cost there was.

This is not a man or a history I want to celebrate for my Italian heritage or in my wonderful Syracuse community!

Cindy is an Italian Heritage, long-time resident of Syracuse, grateful to share friendships and actions toward a better world with neighbors from the Onondaga Nation.

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