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Baltimore Bill Would Rename Columbus Day To Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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Eli Pousson/Baltimore Heritage via Flickr
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 A Baltimore City Council bill to officially change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day throughout the city, at a time where the Italian explorer’s legacy is under renewed scrutiny amid a massive reckoning over racial injustice.

It’s the latest public re-examination of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore. A group of protesters tore down a Columbus statue near the Inner Harbor on the 4th of July and Councilman Ryan Dorsey has introduced a bill currently making its way through City Hall to rename another Columbus monument in the city.

Councilman John Bullock introduced the Indigenous Peoples’ Day bill at a council meeting last week. It has the support of City Council President Brandon Scott, as well councilmembers Dorsey, Sharon Green Middleton, Shannon Sneed, Bill Henry, Kristerfer Burnett, Edward Reisinger and Leon Pinkett. All are Democrats. Scott attempted to change the holiday’s name in 2016, but his bill failed by a narrow margin.  

Bullock, who represents West Baltimore, said at a Tuesday afternoon hearing that the purpose of the bill is to identify and honor indigenous peoples.

“History, oftentimes, has left a lot to be desired,” Bullock said. 

Bullock’s bill received unanimous support from indigenous community members who spoke at the hearing, such as Jennifer Aphelion, who is Cherokee, Pueblo and Aztec. 

“Children often gain confidence when they see reflected images of themselves and family in the home, and Baltimore is home to many urban Indians like myself,” Aphelion said. “Moving to have Indigenous Peoples Day, that is to see ourselves reflected in Baltimore City.”

Some Italian-Americans who testified at the hearing oppose the bill, citing long-running pride for Columbus throughout their community.

“If you are going to eliminate Columbus Day, you should rename it for another iconic Italian-American,” John Pica, a former Maryland state senator who represented Baltimore City from 1983 to 1996, said. “If that’s not done, that’s an insult to Italian-Americans.”

Indigenous peoples deserve their own holiday, Pica said, but Columbus Day is synonymous with Italian heritage, and its commemoration “recognized Italians could be considered white people. We weren't even considered white people.” 

Pica’s comment was condemned by several others who spoke at the hearing, including Councilman Dorsey and Tavey, a woman of Cherokee descent.  

“It hurts us to hear about Columbus Day and parades and statues honoring somebody who is responsible for indigenous genocide,”she said. “I hear you saying that celebrating Columbus Day is celebrating the time when Italians became viewed as white and therefore gained privilege. Meanwhile, indigenous and native peoples are still, on a day to day, basis trying to convince people that we exist.”

Sammy Didonato, of a group called Baltimore Italians for Indigenous Peoples Day, testified in support of the bill, arguing that changing how we remember our past is the way we can change our future. 

“Columbus was a genocidal, terrible human being,” Didonato said. “We understand that the older generation of Italian Americans needed to find a hero in Columbus in the 1900s when it was offered to them. ... That's not a reality that anyone on this call is trying to deny.”

Before the hearing’s public testimony portion began, Councilman Dorsey, who is descended from Italian immigrants, said no one can speak on behalf of the entire Italian-American community. 

“It's not any sort of monolith,” Dorsey said. “It involves a lot of variety of folks, as in any collective identification.” 

States and municipalities across the country have renamed the holiday, including Howard County, Washington, D.C., Maine, Alaska, South Dakota, Oregon and Minnesota, as well as more than 130 cities and towns, according to The New York Times.

The bill must pass second and third readers before it becomes law; it would take effect the day it is passed. Councilman Bullock aims to pass the bill in time for Oct. 12, this year’s holiday.

 

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