Reporting and writing by Noor Hindi
This fall, Akron will celebrate its newest holiday — Italian-American Heritage and Culture Day — on Oct. 12. The holiday replaces Columbus Day after three years of contentious debate.
In 2017, Ward 4 councilmember Russ Neal introduced legislation to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day. After vociferous pushback from Akron’s Italian-American community, council reached a compromise: The first Monday in October would become North American First Peoples Day and the second Monday in October would remain Columbus Day.
In June, city council voted to rename Columbus Day.
The city also declared September “Welcoming Month,” to celebrate the influx of immigrants to Akron in the last 10 years.
Most Akron officials consider the new resolution a success. All but one councilmember — Neal — voted in favor of it.
“There isn’t a population of Native Americans in our city, but we went through the extraordinary step of creating an Indigenous Peoples Day three years ago,” says Ward 1 Councilman Rich Swirsky. “We dropped [Columbus Day] in June. It’s not appropriate to celebrate him. It’s very difficult to change a national holiday, but we do what we can do to separate ourselves from it.”
Neal continues to argue that declaring Columbus Day as Italian-American Heritage Day is ineffective and misleading. When he voted no on the compromise in June, he argued that the only way to right the wrongs of what that day represents to Black and Indigenous people is to name it Indigenous Peoples Day.
“That day is tainted. It’s stained with the blood of my ancestors and of indigenous folk,” Neal says.
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Sundance, a Muskogee Creek person and the executive director of the Cleveland American Indian Movement, which advocates for Indigenous people in Northeast Ohio, says “the wrong compromises were made.”
“To have Welcoming Month in September and continue to ignore the history of Columbus in October doesn’t seem very welcoming,” Sundance says. “Even to call it Italian [American] Heritage Day does not take away that it’s a day of genocide for us that Italian-Americans have now put their name on.”
‘I think it’s a very strong statement’
The impact of the violence that followed Columbus’s arrival in the Americas continues to be felt in Native communities.
Akronite LaDonna Jessie BlueEye, a Choctaw person, remembers her mother speaking Choctaw to her growing up. BlueEye says her mother didn’t learn English until she was 5 after she was sent to a government-run boarding school as a means to assimilate her to American culture.
Growing up, BlueEye remembers her mother applying for her Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, a U.S. document that verifies that a person possesses a degree of Native American blood.
“I don’t know of any other people in the U.S who are forced to go back to a family tree to prove they belong here,” she says.
Today, BlueEye has forgotten much of the Choctaw language but continues to hold on to her heritage through song and dance. She currently works at the Summit County Board of Elections and says Native communities continue to face voter suppression.
Sundance adds that Native Americans do not control “the image of everyday life of Native people.”
“[Our images] are owned by sports teams, they’re owned by high school mascots, they’re owned by corporate brands. Even some of our supporters, when they come to our demonstrations, [they] drive home with their Jeep Cherokees. You have Omaha Insurance.”
For Sundance, the “rewritten narrative surrounding Columbus” covers up the reality of Native life: Native Americans are still here, but centuries of systemic oppression have created a nation in which “we are not being seen as people.”
“We have an astounding rate, a shameful rate, of murdered and missing Indigenous women in North America…. We have an astounding rate of missing children. We have the highest rate of teenage suicide in the country. We have the shortest life expectancy. We have the least purchase power. We have the least education, the least healthcare, least quality of healthcare in the country. We represent the poorest segment of the country and we represent 2% of the population.
“So, again, the question remains as to whether or not we’re being seen as people.”
In Akron, BlueEye is part of the Portage Path Collaborative, which seeks to educate the public about the portage path, which was used by Indigenous people before Ohio was colonized.
Each year, the Portage Path Collaborative, in partnership with the Lippman School, hosts a weekend of walks and programs to commemorate Native people who lived in the Akron area. They also invite members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana to visit Akron. The effort was created in 2017 after debate over Neal’s resolution to smooth tension.
It is currently the only effort in Akron to educate the public about Native populations, organizers say, and is sponsored by The Lippman School, Summit Metro Parks and the University of Akron Cummings Center for the History of Psychology.
Matt Russ, Curriculum and Student Affairs Director at Lippman, believes the June 2020 resolution is “a step in the right direction,” but would like to see Italian-American Heritage and Culture Day changed to Indigenous Peoples Day.
“If we are going to call ourselves a progressive city, then we should go all the way there,” he says.
But BlueEye says she doesn’t see the point in going further. She loves living in a city that does not recognize Christopher Columbus.
“I think it’s a very strong statement by the city government and the council to really support taking away that name of Columbus because it really is harmful. It’s harmful and painful to see Native American children dress up as Columbus and pilgrims and some of this history that helped wipe us out.”
What Columbus Day means to Italian-Americans in Akron
Columbus Day became a national holiday in 1937. At that time, Italian-American immigrants were being persecuted in the United States. According to the Library of Congress, about 4 million Italians immigrated to the U.S. from 1880 to 1920, and upon arrival, many faced religious discrimination, anti-Italian sentiment and harsh working conditions.
But in recent decades, Christopher Columbus’s legacy has been recast as one that sparked the genocide of Indigenous people and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Italian-American Tom Cardone says his family “never celebrated Christopher Columbus,” but only “Italian-American heritage and culture.” He believes the June 2020 resolution was a “good compromise.”
Akronite John Vallilo, a longtime member of the Italian-American Professional Business Club, has been in conversation with council since 2017 and calls their changes an “assault on Columbus Day and the Italian-American community.”
In 2017, Vallilo advocated against Neal’s resolution. In 2020, he helped draft the resolution to change Columbus Day to Italian American Culture and Heritage Day.
“We feel as a community that Columbus, and Columbus Day, is our celebration,” Vallilo says. “This is our holiday. What right does anyone have to tell an entire community that they cannot celebrate Columbus Day?”
When asked how he reconciles the violence Christopher Columbus inflicted on Native populations, he says he denies those accusations against Columbus.
“Now you have the counter-narrative that Columbus started the slave trade, he was responsible for millions of deaths by bringing disease, and in general, yes, I disagree with those accusations. There’s always nuance. Columbus himself, he may not have been involved in these activities. But could it have been crew members, could it have been his son who later became involved? Maybe.”
Neal is working on a resolution to introduce to council within the next month to make Election Day a paid holiday in Akron in place of Italian-American Heritage Day, which continues to be a paid day off. The law department is drafting the resolution for Neal.
“We can all see right now one of our most precious rights in this country is under attack. This would be a way for our city to lead,” Neal says.
Sandusky made national headlines in 2019 for swapping Columbus Day for a paid day off for Election Day. They also changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.
Sandusky City Manager Eric Wobser says the resolution did not create much tension within the Italian-American community in Sandusky. He says city leaders were able to work on other ways for the Italian-Americans to celebrate their culture, including forming a sister city relationship in Sicily, where many of the Italian-Americans living in Sandusky came from.
Wobser says the resolution created more space for the city to “make Election Day a bigger priority” by offering free rides to polling places. Summit County also offers free rides on Election Day through METRO RTA.
“Eliminating Columbus Day was something that was very well received by our Black community,” Wobser says. “Historically there’s a long history of the United States denying access to the polls and there’s a disproportionate impact on how it affects Black communities in the United States. On a larger basis, from a social justice standpoint, it just made sense.”
This year, North American First Peoples Day will be celebrated Oct. 5. The event will kick off that evening with a livestream on the Akron-Summit County Public Library Facebook page, featuring organizer Matt Russ and a conversation with Ladonna BlueEye. Information and programming about the celebration can be found at walkportagepath.com.
Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s equity and inclusion reporter. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: North American First Peoples Day in October 2018. (Photo: Portage Path Collaborative)