I understand that Columbus Day is a controversial holiday to some. Saying that Columbus “discovered” America is denying the Native Americans who were already living on this land. But no one can argue that Columbus’s landing here precipitated events that led to the formation of the United States of America. And that is something to celebrate—the first country in the world founded on principles and ideas.
Columbus Day has been celebrated in the United States since at least the mid-1800s, when immigrants from Italy started arriving in the country, but it had been celebrated by the American people prior to Italian immigration. In later years, it became a source of pride for Italian immigrants and new Italian Americans born in the United States, a group that was historically discriminated against. It’s unfortunate that Columbus Day seems to be Italian Americans versus Native Americans, when these are two groups who historically suffered discrimination (and genocide). I can understand why Native Americans would not want to celebrate a day that led to the eventual taking of their land and the killing of their people. But I think maybe a bit of Italian history might help them understand the Italian side of things.
Many people have heard that Garibaldi united Italy in the 1860s, but what they don’t realize is that Italy didn’t want to be united. Southern Italy was a part of a different kingdom, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. After unification, Southern Italians rebelled. The government labeled these rebels as brigands to make it sound like they were a bunch of thieves, rather than the patriots they were. Even Benjamin Disraeli spoke of them as patriots. At this time, they were not just killing brigands, but any Southern Italian they could. Naples had been the third largest city after Paris and London, and soon it was raped of its resources and the funds reallocated to Northern Italy for economic improvements there. This is a revisionist history that until late, has been largely forgotten—and purposely so. The situation in Southern Italy became more and more devastating that through the years of the 1870s to the 1920s, more and more Italians left, many coming to the United States. Most of these immigrants were from Southern Italy. But, unfortunately, they left one country that didn’t want them for another that didn’t want them. They suffered much discrimination and prejudice in the United States. They were forced to worship in the basement of predominantly Irish Catholic churches. They were lynched in the South. Some Southern states banned them from living in their states in the early 1900s.
But Southern Italians were a hardy people and were fighters, much like Native Americans. They had cities in Southern Italy dating back 10,000 years. Matera, in the southern state of Basilicata, is one such ancient city, where The Passion of the Christ was filmed because of its sassi, or houses carved in stone. Some of the older tribes of Italians were the Lucanians of this area and also the Samnites and Sabines of South-Central Italy. The Samnites were great warriors with a developed civilization alongside the Roman one. They had three wars with the Romans, and eventually lost to them. The Romans knew they had a formidable enemy, so they committed a genocide of the Samnites. Many did survive because they were familiar with the interior mountains of Italy and could hide. Others blended in with Roman society (Pontius Pilate was one of them). There is a famous battle, the battle of the Caudine Forks in 321 BC, where they defeated the Romans. The people from this area are still proud of this battle against the Romans. It is near the village where my grandfather was born, and I am a Samnite. Now, that was in 321 BC—a long time ago and yet I still identify with these people and this battle. It is still a great source of pride for me. Because I know that the Romans didn’t kill us off—because I’m still here. And the Northern Italians didn’t kill us off in the 1800s—because I’m still here. And the prejudice and discrimination we endured—and continue to endure as an “Other”ized group in the United States didn’t and doesn’t dissuade us—we are still here.
And I am sure that is how the Native Americans feel, a sense of loss but a sense of pride for fighting. I can always go back to Italy, even though I am culturally American. The homeland where my family comes from still exists albeit in a different way since millions of its children came from Southern Italy to America. Native Americans don’t have a homeland. Their homeland is here, a completely different place that was historically unkind to them and treated them much like the Roman Empire treated the Samnites, a nuisance standing in the way of Roman domination. But the Native Americans proudly fought, a fact I and many people greatly admire.
As an Italian American, I hate that Columbus Day makes Native Americans feel less than or as an “Other”ized group because my people were made to feel like an “Other”ized group and that is one reason Columbus Day is a source of pride for Italian Americans. I grew up near the Lumbee tribe and I do recognize the Lumbees as an official tribe. I also saw “Other”ization of them firsthand and experienced “Other”ization myself. I am hoping with more insight into this lost Italian history—that is never really told to a wider audience than Italian American academics, maybe Native Americans will see that they have more in common with Italian Americans and that Columbus Day isn’t about the beginning of the end for them. Just like the Samnites and Southern Italians, they fought and they are still here. And we are all Americans in the United States, a country that we love and hate, hate for its painful history but love for its progressive laws.
–Dina Di Maio