Every year, the second Monday in October marks a long weekend in which New York City celebrates Columbus Day. But something new is coming to New York this weekend: an Indigenous Peoples Celebration led by the Red Hawk Council. If you check out their website, or just look at the above photo, it says “Re-Thinking Columbus Day.” And so this got me re-thinking: are Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day on a collision course in our nation’s biggest city? And if they are, what would Iron Eyes Cody say about it?
Before I get to Iron Eyes, let me stress that this Monday, Italian-Americans and Native Americans will not literally be crashing into each other on Fifth Avenue. Yet it’s not so hard to imagine such an occurrence during an October of the Hillary Clinton administration. It’s not like the choice of Indigenous People’s Day is some kind of coincidence; it’s a direct response to the celebration of a man who many consider the instigator of a genocide. Even if you don’t see Columbus that way, it’s fairly clear that he personally supervised the enslavement and mutilation of scores of Native Americans. All across America, cities have removed Columbus Day and replaced it with Indigenous People’s Day. And the way that twitter-led “outrage machine” has been going, it’s fair to ask if Columbus Day will be the next Confederate Flag – here today, stigmatized tomorrow.
Decades ago, my hometown of Berkeley changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in less time than it takes to make a dreamcatcher. Park your car at any Berkeley parking meter and you’ll see the words “Indigenous Peoples Day.” But Berkeley doesn’t have an appreciable, or at least vocal, Italian-American community.
There’s always been something slightly strange about Columbus Day becoming de facto Italian American Day. Colon, as the Spaniards call him, was working for them, and he came from Genoa, which, in the 1400s, was about as culturally close to Rome as Tahiti is to Hawaii. But those three ships that ship has sailed. October 12th, or thereabouts, is when Italian flags pop up all over Manhattan like crocuses in spring. To change it now – to even suggest that it be moved to something like Italy’s actual Festa della Repubblica on June 2 – would probably amount to an outrageous insult to Italians and everyone in the Italian diaspora.
This might be the right Columbus/Indigenous Day to revisit Iron Eyes Cody, considering both the Red Hawk Council event and that we just made it through the summer of Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner. Right now people are talking about the mutability of identity, of where you can hybridize, where you can switch, and where you can’t. Cody could save us – or not.
Iron Eyes Cody was Hollywood’s most famous Indian – he has 211 imdb actor credits, having worked with just about everyone who made a Western in the 20th century. Yet today he may be most famous not for a film, but for the famous 1971 anti-pollution “Keep America Beautiful” commercial where he sees a careless litterer toss trash from a car and turns to the camera and cries a single tear. (1971? Did Don Draper invent that ad after some time in Big Sur?)
In our, ahem, more enlightened times, we might call him Ironies Cody, because he lived with a secret that he never revealed in his many interviews. Unlike many so-called white Americans who can (or try to) claim 1/16th Native American heritage, Cody had no biological connection to Native Americans. He was born Oscar DeCorti around 1904 in Louisiana. In Neil Diamond’s documentary Reel Injun, we get the story from Angela Aleiss, who is a PhD, UCLA professor, and Capitol Hill advocate against harmful Native American stereotypes:
His parents were immigrants from Sicily and Southern Italy. Back then at the turn-of-the-century Louisiana, Italians were not welcome. There was a lynching by the Irish against the Italians.” [Diamond’s doc cuts to an image of African-Americans being lynched.] “So he grew up amongst all sorts of prejudice against Italians. He always loved American Indians and wanted to be part of them even though he was Sicilian, so he took on another identity. He always wanted to be in pictures so he eventually joined Hollywood. Behind the camera, he was very much involved. His wife was Native American. He had the whole image in his real life as well as in Hollywood. So when the camera stopped, he kept his identity and he became what his image was. – Angela Aleiss
One problem with prejudice is that it doesn’t have the same manifestations across all groups and classes. Asian-Americans get labeled as a “model minority,” but that prejudice is not always usefully comparable to, say, the problems that blacks face sending their resumes to get jobs or home loans. And yet comparisons can be useful; for example, one of the best cases against the name of the Washington Redskins, made by Chris Rock almost 25 years ago, is that you wouldn’t have a football team called the New York N*ggers. Another problem: because many minorities are fighting for scraps from the white straight man’s table, they can wind up playing a zero-sum game where one group’s benefit is another’s loss. And it’s not always enough to hold hands and sing kumbaya afterward.
Through the power of editing, Neil Diamond’s (no, not the one who sings “Sweet Caroline”) documentary dares to compare one anti-Italian lynching to an anti-black lynching epidemic; I’m not sure that all of my black friends would appreciate that little insert. Aleiss, whose credentials are impeccable, finds it appropriate to defend Cody’s cultural appropriation by situating him as part of a white, but persecuted, minority. This works well enough on a 2009 documentary that few have seen, but if Aleiss were to make that speech at a Columbus (or Indigenous) Day rally and see it picked up by, say, The Today Show, I honestly wonder where Twitter would go with it. If a currently famous Italian-American – say, one of the cast of Jersey Shore – were to make a decision to live his/her whole life as a Native American from now on, what would people say?
I realize that as a person writing an article, I’m supposed to have an opinion. I’m not supposed to simply ask questions. As a person with Italian and indigenous friends, I’m not really sure what to say. I’m not sure what the populist, or even popular, opinion would or should be. Perhaps we can all continue to get along? Or perhaps the Native Americans organizing this weekend’s pow-wow (their term) will be bringing $24 and a receipt to take back Manhattan?
If neither of those are tenable, as a populist (and not merely a complainer), I do have one recommendation. In the documentary, Diamond meets Robert Tree Cody, who says he will always defend his father. It’s possible to see Cody as having Italian and indigenous heritage. (It’s also possible that some might raise objections, partly because Cody is adopted; let’s hope not, because then we have to start all over.)
You think Robert Tree Cody might be available to work as a Joint Parade Commissioner?