The Knights of Columbus are apparently not happy with Oberlin’s plans to denounce their namesake.
“Columbus Day has special meaning, including to many Italian-Americans and Catholics. Therefore, to repeal, diminish, or replace Columbus Day are unfair and hurtful to those communities,” Jonathan Petrea of Cleveland, a Knights member, told council Monday.
The comments arose as Oberlin city council aims to sink the October holiday in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
If successful, it will be the first city in Ohio to formally rebuke Christopher Columbus by refusing to observe the federal holiday in his honor.
Petrea said Columbus Day celebrates diversity and memorializes the struggles of immigrants who faced discrimination upon reaching America. He attempted to discredit accounts that cast a dark pall on the 15th century explorer’s reputation, saying Columbus has been blamed for the actions of those who followed him to the New World.
“He was a man ahead of his time and a fearless explorer, (a) brilliant navigator whose daring discovery changed the course of history,” Petrea said.
Robert Roche, director of the American Indian Education Center in Parma, compared Columbus to Adolph Hitler.
He said students should be taught the truth about who Columbus was and the horrors he unleashed on native peoples.
“Columbus was a barbarian. He was a slave trader. He decimated the Taino tribe in Puerto Rico,” Roche said, describing the enslavement of native people. Children who didn’t provide gold weekly to Spanish conquerors were punished by having their hands cut off.
Some of the meeting’s debate involved terminology.
Councilwoman Sharon Soucy questioned the use of the term “indigenous,” asking those of native ancestry whether “native peoples” or native tribes would be more appropriate.
When Columbus arrived at Hispaniola and the Bahamas, he was lost and believed he was in the East Indies. He wrongly called the people he met Indians.
Today, many native groups have varying preferences for what words are used to describe North American inhabitants who predate European colonists. Journalists typically follow the Associated Press style that American Indian and Native American are acceptable for those in the United States.
Soucy said she wanted to be sensitive to the preferences of Native Americans but also to be practical.
“The word indigenous is a tough one. I think it doesn’t bring an image to mind and certainly it’s a tongue-twister for youngsters,” she said.
Roche and Cleveland American Indian Movement director Sundance both said indigenous was a welcome term for Oberlin to embrace.
Council has been vocally unified in its goal of ending Columbus Day observances. Many Oberlin residents and workers who stood to speak sided with leaders, offering words of support.
But council president Ronnie Rimbert said the city also has an obligation to its unions, and changing anything — even switching Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day — in contracts requires negotiations. He said those talks are coming up soon.
Rimbert urged people of native ancestry to step forward and help move the resolution to a final vote, which is expected to happen swiftly.
“The more help we can get from some of our indigenous brothers and sisters, the more we can make this the best resolution we can make it,” he said. “If this is going to be the first one in Ohio, it might as well be the best one in the country.”
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.