Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita isn’t shy about stirring the stew of America’s boiling culture war.

This week, he dragged the people of Clinton, Indiana, into his cauldron.

The Vermillion County community north of Terre Haute is proud of its Italian heritage. Like so many immigrants who came to the United States during and since its birth, Italians have maintained their ethnic identity while blending into the melting pot of American society. Clinton, which has a sizable population of people who trace to Italian ancestry, celebrates its heritage in special ways, including with its annual Little Italy Festival every Labor Day weekend.

The folks in Clinton recognize and honor Christopher Columbus as one of their own. The Italian navigator and explorer whose harrowing journeys across the Atlantic Ocean in the late 15th and early 16th centuries opened the doors to European colonization of the “New World” to the west. His exploits on behalf of the Spanish monarchy have been held up as heroic, although time and deeper research reveal a less attractive leading man in these mythical adventures.

Although Columbus and his “achievement” of discovering America have garnered him a U.S. federal holiday, there is far more to his story. As is the case with so many historical figures, the truth about Columbus paints a complicated picture. He never set foot on what we now call the North American continent. He spent most of his time exploring and conquering Caribbean islands and the coastlines of South and Central America. Research suggests he abused native peoples he encountered on those islands and helped introduce slavery to the region.

As the truth about Columbus has emerged, Americans have become less likely to honor him or celebrate his holiday each October. Many would like to do away with the observance altogether and replace it with a day to honor those who first called the continent home hundreds of years before Columbus was born.

In fact, President Joe Biden issued an executive order recently declaring last Monday Indigenous Peoples’ Day to do just that.

Rokita, a Republican, was rankled. So he set out on the holiday to a place where Italian heritage is celebrated to stoke fires of resentment against historical facts.

The AG later issued a press release about his visit to Clinton. It stated that he celebrated the “contributions of Christopher Columbus” and rattled off a litany of other conservative political talking points. He decried the lack of respect shown by some to the acclaimed explorer.

“For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of American students were taught about the significance of Columbus’ discovery of the New World in school, and his contributions were greatly admired,” Rokita is quoted as saying. “But now left-wing radical socialists are tearing down statues of Columbus, and diminishing a hero who was greatly respected by millions of Americans.”

He then went after Biden, mocking what he called the president’s “deliberate attempt to purge Columbus from our history, and forever erase his contributions from memory.”

Italian heritage need not be caught in the crosshairs of this battle. Italian contributions to American society can be celebrated without ignoring or minimizing the tragedies European colonization and exploration brought upon indigenous peoples.

Rokita appears to have been alone among Hoosier state officials rallying on Columbus’ behalf. His purpose was clear. As a politician with eyes on higher office, Rokita used the people of Clinton not to advance their interests, but to promote his own.
© 2021 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.