Don't repeal and replace Columbus Day

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The political left has been talking forever about doing away with Columbus Day and now they’ve gone and done it.

Several Democrat-dominated cities and towns in Maine, mostly within the last few weeks, have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to be celebrated the second Monday of October. By doing so, these city leaders are doing their best to wipe out the collective memory of Christopher Columbus – a pillar of Western culture if there ever was one – in favor of “indigenous peoples” whom they say Columbus uprooted, murdered, infected and enslaved.

Way to go Bangor, Portland, Belfast, Orono and Brunswick. Your leaders are really brave to finally stand up to someone who they may consider a virtue-less, dead white man, but who many others agree inspired a generation of explorers and generations of Italian immigrants venturing to America.

Columbus Day, despite what the left says, is not a day set aside to tread upon the memory of Native Americans. It’s a day to honor all immigrants to this “New World” of America.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day – which, by design, is narrow in scope – honors only those who are native to America. Supporters think it’s necessary to prop up this segment. I don’t think so. We already have a day to honor Native Americans. It’s called Thanksgiving.

On that day we honor the Pilgrims’ religious legacy and the essential role native tribes played in aiding their survival in the 1620s. Every American knows the Pilgrims couldn’t have made it – America as we know it wouldn’t have made it – without the help of indigenous people.

We in New England are particularly astute to the nation’s early history since it happened here; but even we need some reminders now and then. I come from an Italian-dominated community in Rhode Island. In the center of town is a huge statue of Columbus holding a globe. It’s a beautiful sculpture, but I never thought much about it until recently, when Confederate statue-razing became all the rage. Likewise, I never took much interest in Columbus Day. That’s all changed now.

Now that another part of our country’s foundation is being attacked and chipped away little by little, I better appreciate what Columbus and his day stands for.

Cristoforo Colombo, as everyone knows, was an Italian explorer who sailed the ocean blue in 1492. They say he never set foot in what is now America, preferring the tropical climes of what is now Central America, but he is important because he discovered the New World.

When Europe was dying from disease and war, Columbus found an escape hatch from the feudalism, filth and overpopulation. If that achievement isn’t important enough to get yourself remembered for all time, the holiday’s importance also stems from a wave of 4 million Italian immigrants between 1880 and 1924. Italian-Americans endured great persecution (as has, unfortunately, every wave of immigrants), but by 1937 they had gained enough footing in their own new world that a federal holiday honoring their great ancestor was designated.

But Columbus Day isn’t just about Columbus; it is about remembering the generations of Italian immigrants (brave explorers in their own right, to be sure) who followed in his footsteps. Those early immigrants are probably rolling in their graves to see how Americans with Italian heritage are being cast out of the public sphere.

Not a shy bunch by nature, today’s Italians aren’t taking the holiday name change lying down. As the Portland Press Herald reported following last week’s Portland City Council vote to approve the holiday change, the Italian Heritage Center in Portland was miffed by the council’s action. One of the center’s representatives who spoke at the public hearing rightly said, “This is like a slap in the face to the Italians who reside here.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Italians are searing, but all immigrants should be as well. Columbus Day represents all immigrants to America, not just Italians. He represents all who have crossed an ocean to come here. Columbus was the first immigrant of many.

Inclusionary Mainers embrace Italians as they embrace the Penobscots, Maliseets, Abenaki and other native tribes who were here long before Columbus. In a time when we are debating immigration’s benefits to our country, it’s unfathomable that city and town councils are picking this moment to isolate and exclude such an important immigrant population. I find it both confusing and shameful that they have deemed it no longer necessary to honor our Italian heritage. If Thanksgiving isn’t a high-enough honor for the indigenous population, establish a new holiday. Don’t repeal and replace a time-honored tradition.

Hopefully this hysteria against Italians and other immigrant groups doesn’t migrate to the Maine Legislature or the U.S. Congress, both of which, thankfully, still mark Columbus Day.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.

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