Grand Gestures | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Grand Gestures 

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Will sharing Columbus Day help Utah's Native Americans to feel heard and have their history known? Or will it be just another grand gesture without much political follow-through?

Despite the recent well-attended Salt Lake City council meeting wherein members announced Columbus Day would be celebrated in conjunction with Indigenous Peoples Day, it seems uncertain. I mean, what can an extra day do that a dedicated month could not? Don't get it twisted; I wholeheartedly support a month of education and celebration for Native American cultures, I just also think Utah's indigenous communities deserve more than token political intent.

While I understand the symbolism of not celebrating a man whom many feel committed atrocious crimes upon arriving in new lands, and can certainly see the point of revisiting the way we think about holidays, in review of history, Columbus Day seems a small fish to fry, considering how it came to be.

According to an NPR Code Switch report, "How Columbus Sailed Into U.S. History," the holiday was first celebrated in 1892, one year after 11 Sicilian immigrants were lynched for a crime they didn't commit. It was a time in American history when Italian immigrants faced daily discrimination from earlier (also immigrant) settlers. Thus, the decision was made to use the 400th anniversary of Columbus sailing to America as a means to bring Italians legitimacy.

The fact that Columbus never reached America—at best setting foot in the Bahamas—in addition to his behavior upon arrival, was of little importance. For Italian immigrants, the holiday was a symbol of overcoming obstacles—a feat all immigrant communities can relate to. By 1934, Columbus Day was named a federal holiday and Italian immigrants continued to work their way into the fabric of mainstream society.

This view becomes quite different through the looking glass of the population whose ancestors were enslaved and died of foreign disease. For them, Columbus symbolizes the beginning of the end of their way of life. Though I agree with the notion of not celebrating atrocities, I must also admit, as I read the signs some folks were carrying outside the Salt Lake City government building Columbus committed genocide, I questioned the logic of blaming one man for something hundreds, if not thousands, of settlers took part in.

In my mind, to blame one person for the horrendous mistreatment of indigenous people spanning hundreds of years, is as much a disservice as celebrating him. If Columbus was solely responsible for killing millions of natives, then whom did the pilgrims massacre? Why are we going after a holiday in October, and not the real mass acquisition holiday celebrated with feasts in November? My off-the-cuff assumption is the marketing cash cow Thanksgiving has become.

It is well known that our early educational view of pilgrims and "Indians" is retold through the rosiest of lenses. Yet no city councils are making any addendums to the celebration of Thanksgiving. Instead of shifting how we celebrate Thanksgiving, a former president offered a month of recognition back in 1990. Granted, grand gestures of this nature are still accomplishments and certainly attribute to viewing history differently. However, they can also be attempts by those in power unprepared for real change to appear as though they are part of the revolution.

Even SLC council's handling of the joint cultural celebrations strikes me as disingenuous. In an email to the Italian American Civic League, treasurer Nick Fuoco told me they were locked out of any discussion. Not only is that a missed opportunity to bring two groups capable of building up their communities together, but it also tells a narrative that lacks authenticity.

Our society seems to be able to move past and accept the mistreatment of those who immigrated to this country in generations past. But when it comes to coping with how the government and our ancestors treated those native to this land, there is almost too much shame to face it. Meaning, the road to seek justice will be much tougher for Utah's native population.

Luckily, the Utah League of Native American Voters' mission is to bring political awareness and participation to Native American communities, but will their largest support base (ahem, millennial voters) turn out when the issues are not as high-profile as holiday sharing or protecting monuments?

The number of Millennials and Gen Xers who overflowed council chambers to hear tear-jerking Native American speeches prior to council was noteworthy. Almost so impressive that I thought I'd have to write a retraction on their lack of political involvement. Disappointingly, this fear rapidly vanished as the majority of them left seconds after the council announced the new joint holiday arrangement.

While the younger crowd could not be bothered by the low-profile agenda items, the older generation stayed to provide feedback. Had the younger crowd been able to pay attention past the first 10 minutes, they could have provided input on topics greatly affecting their daily life.

Hence my fear our indigenous friends will not have the necessary support when attempts for legislative aspirations are made. At the end of the day, it would be a shame if recognition became the consolation prize for change.

Aspen Perry is a Salt Lake City-based aspiring author and self-proclaimed "philosophical genius." Send feedback to comments@cityweekly.net

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Aspen Perry

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