What DO we celebrate on Federal Hill in October?

Festivals Dept.
By MATTHEW LAWRENCE  |  October 9, 2013

THE SAILOR A posthumous portrait of Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo.

This weekend, Atwells Avenue in Providence will shut down for its annual Columbus Day Festival, a three-day event featuring a Sunday morning parade, rides for small children, and a seemingly endless string of vendors selling sausage and pepper sandwiches. The streets of Federal Hill will be adorned with Italian flags to honor the explorer, and the line stretching down the middle of the road will be given fresh coats of red, white, and green paint.

The festival is organized by the Federal Hill Commerce Association, and it’s one of many celebrations happening nationwide in cities and towns with strong Italian-American communities. (There’s one in Westerly, too.) Ken Turchetta, one of the festival’s organizers, says the Providence event has been going on for decades and he estimates that five to ten thousand visitors will visit Federal Hill each day. Many come for the food — expect local Italian restaurants to be out in full force — as well as for the parade, which includes local marching bands and dancers, the 88th Army Band, and the giant monsters of Big Nazo. Multiple stages will also feature a group of celebrity impersonators doing their own takes on Elvis Presley, Rod Stewart, and Tina Turner.

But Columbus Day celebrations are not without their detractors. After all, Columbus’s letters and journals express an eager willingness to enslave Taino natives, who had been peacefully living on the land for centuries when he arrived. Over the next 25 years, more than 90 percent of the hundreds of thousands of Taino were killed off by slavery, massacre, and disease. By the middle of the 16th century they had been completely exterminated.

“Everyone has to have their heroes,” says John Brown, a historic preservationist for the Narragansett Indian Tribe. “But you just have to understand that one person’s hero is another person’s despot or dictator.

“For them it was a ‘new world,’ ” he continues. “But this world was as old as the one they were coming from. They didn’t arrive on vacant land. People here lived in peace and in harmony with nature. There was enough oxygen and plants and animals and food for every person alive at that point. Look at what’s changed since then. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a person of the 21st century, too. But is this what we’re celebrating?”

Rhode Island has an Italian-American population of nearly 200,000, compared to a Native American population of less than 7000, so the holiday is unlikely to fall out of favor, as it has in several other states. South Dakota renamed the holiday Native American Day in 1990, and Hawaii celebrates Discoverers Day, while Alaska and Nevada don’t really acknowledge the holiday at all. That said, four years ago Brown University faculty voted to rename their mid-October break “Fall Weekend.” The furious response from conservative student groups and local radio talk show hosts that followed was documented in the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s 2010 exhibit, “Reimagining Columbus, Reimagining Columbus Day.”

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