Philadelphia’s official visitor site celebrates this city “as the birthplace of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” When Philadelphia was declared the first “World Heritage City” in the country by UNESCO in 2015, the mayor noted the city’s “enduring commitment to preserving the unique historical and cultural assets in our diverse community.”
But in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, preservation and pride in our history apparently has its limits.
I recently wrote about the image of an indigenous person that lines the sidewalks of South Philly’s East Passyunk Avenue, which gets its name from the Lenape people whose land we live on. Although this symbol, which also has been adopted as the logo of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District, is ostensibly meant to honor that past, according to the Lenape people I interviewed, it is instead an inaccurate, dismissive stereotype.
The Inquirer followed up on that story last week and spoke to more folks in East Passyunk. Some responded by rejecting the concerns of Lenape people, including one business owner who said, “It’s ancient history what happened ... No one here was involved back then.” He went on to dismiss the inaccuracy of the logo as unimportant: “One feather, two feather, three feathers — what does it matter.”
Yet the “ancient history” of genocide upon which our country is founded overlaps directly with the legacy our city uses to draw millions of tourists each year. After all, it was William Penn himself who negotiated a deal with the Lenape people to gain permission to establish this city, and his own son who broke that agreement. There are no plaques explaining any of this in East Passyunk, by the way. Meanwhile, the sidewalks of Old and Center City, which you can follow all the way to Penn’s statue towering above City Hall, are dotted with signs outlining the history of the city’s European residents, without any maintenance holes bearing a sad-looking white man’s face.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised about this kind of dismissal in a city that continues to celebrate Christopher Columbus, a brutal colonist who oversaw the murder, rape, and enslavement of indigenous people. The passion for the Passyunk logo reflects the way the U.S. as a whole paints its past. Like our official visitor websites and most of the “historical” markers in Philly, the American story is still largely being written from the perspective of white, nonindigenous men.
Dom Giordano wrote in this paper that anti-Columbus Day graffiti that appeared on East Passyunk last year constituted a “hate crime,” especially on the sidewalk outside the History of Italian Immigration Museum, because it contains “remembrance of ancestors of Philadelphia area Italians.” Giordano had nothing to say, though, about the logo nearby on that same sidewalk.
Defenders of Columbus Day say that the holiday is about celebrating Italian Americans and not the man it is named after. It’s no surprise that some also defend Frank Rizzo and the statue that “honors” him outside City Hall. But under this logic, what Rizzo and Columbus represent to Italian Americans trumps what the honoring of these racists might represent to black, indigenous, and other people of color. Are certain white ancestors more important than entire communities they devastated?
So it goes in East Passyunk, where what the “logo” signifies to white people whose face it is not caricaturing seems to be most important. But as Carla J. S. Messinger, a local educator and director of Native American Heritage Programs, stressed to me, this is not only an issue of who matters most in the past, but also common perceptions of who matters most today: “We are here and we will be here. We are REAL and not a mascot or some simplistic symbol.”
Indigenous people continue to face systemic oppression in the U.S. For instance, according to Amnesty International, “Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted” than other women in the U.S., and at least 86 percent of their perpetrators are non-Native men. These experiences have been continually ignored. Columbus celebrations and other male-dominated depictions of “history” only contribute to that kind of erasure.
For many, the response to such critiques is to find someone who will give them “permission” to use a logo or to continue celebrating colonizers. Yet regardless of whether or not these practices offend every indigenous person, it’s worth asking why so many nonindigenous people feel compelled to maintain an inaccurate picture of American history.
Who is the face on the ground in South Philadelphia really serving?