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Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day? It depends where you live

(RNS1-OCT04) Christopher Columbus, seen here in "The Landing of Columbus" by John Vanderlyn in the Capitol Rotunda, is best known as an explorer, but a new book argues he may have been on a quest to find gold to finance another crusade against Muslim control of Jerusalem. RNS photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol/Library of Congress.
Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519. There are no known authentic portraits of Columbus, according to Wikipedia.

Photo via Wikipedia

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519.

NEW YORK (Reuters) About four miles from the world’s largest Christopher Columbus parade in midtown Manhattan on Monday, hundreds of Native Americans and their supporters will hold a sunrise prayer circle to honor ancestors who were slain or driven from their land.

The ceremony will begin the final day of a weekend “powwow” on Randall’s Island in New York’s East River, an event that features traditional dancing, story-telling and art.

The Redhawk Native American Arts Council’s powwow is both a celebration of Native American culture and an unmistakable counterpoint to the parade, which many detractors say honors a man who symbolizes centuries of oppression of aboriginal people by Europeans.

Organizers hope to call attention to issues of social and economic injustice that have dogged Native Americans since Christopher Columbus led his path-finding expedition to the “New World” in 1492.

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The powwow has been held for the past 20 years but never on Columbus Day. It is part of a drive by Native Americans and their supporters throughout the country, who are trying to rebrand Columbus Day as a holiday that honors indigenous people, rather than their European conquerors. Their efforts have been successful in several U.S. cities this year.

“The fact that America would honor this man is preposterous,” said Cliff Matias, lead organizer of the powwow and a lifelong Brooklyn resident who claims blood ties with Latin America’s Taino and Kichwa nations. “It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.”

But for many Italian Americans, who take pride in the explorer’s Italian roots, the holiday is a celebration of their heritage and role in building America. Many of them are among the strongest supporters of keeping the traditional holiday alive.

Berkeley, California, was the first city to drop Columbus Day, replacing it in 1992 with Indigenous Peoples Day. The trend has gradually picked up steam across the country.

Last year, Minneapolis and Seattle became the first major U.S. cities to designate the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

This month, Portland, Oregon, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Bexar County, Texas, decided to eliminate Columbus Day and replace it with the new holiday. Oklahoma City is set for a vote on a similar proposal later this month.

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Columbus Day became a U.S. federal holiday in 1937. The federal government and about half of U.S. states give public employees paid leave, according to the Council of State Governments. Schools and government offices are generally closed, but many private businesses remain open.

Support for Indigenous Peoples Day has steadily risen in recent years, paralleling the growing perception that the wave of European settlement in the Western Hemisphere was genocidal to native populations.

Gino Barichello, who attended Berkeley city council meetings in the 1990s that resulted in the establishment of Indigenous Peoples Day, said he viewed the trend with pride.

“To have a recognition and celebration of all the indigenous cultures of the U.S., and Berkeley being one of the catalysts leading that charge, is very exciting,” said Barichello, who says he is half Italian and half Muscogee, a Native American tribe based in Oklahoma.

New York City, with the country’s largest Italian American population at 1.9 million, attracts nearly 35,000 marchers and nearly 1 million spectators to its annual Columbus Day parade.

The Columbus Citizens Foundation, a non-profit that organizes the parade, says on its website the event “celebrates the spirit of exploration and courage that inspired Christopher Columbus’s 1492 expedition and the important contributions Italian-Americans have made to the United States.”

John Viola, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Italian American Foundation, said renaming Columbus Day dishonors the country’s 25 million Italian Americans and their ancestors. He said Italian Americans feel slighted by cities that are dropping Columbus Day.

“By default, we’re like the collateral damage of this trend,” he said.

The foundation’s leadership council is scheduled later this month to take up the issue.

One of the proposals expected to be floated at the meeting is to change the name to Italian American Day, taking the spotlight off Columbus and other European explorers. Under this proposal, Indigenous People Day would be celebrated on a different day.

“I think many people believe there could be a middle road,” Viola said.

By Laila Kearney; Editing by Frank McGurty and David Gregorio

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  • Being first on some continent is complicated. Should we grant all the land to the first man or woman to set their foot on said land? Should we grant all of the surface of Earth to the first human? If so,who is that person? And do persons claiming this land falsely and who kill, scalp, kidnap and enslave their enemies deserve any recognition as holders of land?

  • To use terminology from the movie The Hunger Games, whether one calls this day ‘Columbus Day’ or ‘Indigenous People’s Day’ depends on whether one see what has happened here from the view of those living in the Capitol or from those living in the Districts.

  • I can’t believe that this is even a discussion. Historians agree that Columbus, not finding a lot of gold, instead kidnapped hundreds of Native Americans to bring back to Europe and sell as slaves, and then oversaw and directed the mass enslavement and slaughter of the Native Americans where he had landed. From an initial population of over 250,000 Natives on that island, only about 100,000 remained free & alive after a few years. Columbus also gave Native women as sex slaves to his officers, and profited from selling Native Americans as sex slaves, saying that “those aged 9 or 10 are now in demand”. Natives who failed to bring him enough gold had their hands cut off, and forced to be worn around their necks until they bled to death. His actions are many of the same things that ISIL does today. Yes, we have a holiday for ISIL actions, here in America. Heinous. .

  • But hey, those basic facts are omitted from articles on this. Why? Why continue to whitewash history and hide the facts of the situation? Because with white privilege, the facts about the genocide of Native Americans is less important than protecting white fragility & white privilege. It’s a shame that journalists are so cowed by white fragility that they can’t bring themselves to publish the relevant facts of their topic.

  • As a descendent of the Mayflower invasion, albeit one that had an amicable relationship with Native Americans initially, I don’t particularly care for the name Indigenous People, it sounds cold and fossilized. I would agree with changing the name but why not call it Native Americans Day, same meaning but keeps the reality that they still exist?
    I, for one, grew up with parents that encouraged me to learn about pre-caucasian inhabitants of our nation. In school it was taught that they were a savage group of beings that needed to be civilized. At home, I learned that, although they were a wanderer-gatherer culture, they had a great, peaceful organization of tribes that provided both protection and access to the necessities of life – food, clothing and shelter while leaving a very small footprint on the environment. This is definitely something to learn from and celebrate!

  • Albuquerque still celebrates Columbus Day. Indigenous Peoples Day is an optional alternative designation. Our local government wants to have it both ways.

  • Proviso, if you don’t mind my asking, when did you go to school and where did you go to school? When I was in school, we were taught extensively about the social, economic, political, and religious practices of various tribes, especially the Iroquois. Never do I recall being taught that they were “savages needing to be civilized.”

    The bottom line is that both the white civilization and the native American tribes were capable of acts of great wisdom on the one hand and sheer brutality on the other. This liberal worship of indigenous tribes as though they were little angels is just as bad as myths about Columbus being some wonderful Christian exemplar.

    I say let’s have Columbus Day and also a separate day at some other time of year to honor the earlier inhabitants. That would be a fair resolution.

  • It can be said many consider Columbus a tyrant due to how he was exploiting Native Amercians. This also can be said is a reason why many are making a move to remove this holiday. For example:

    “Shockingly, Columbus supervised the selling of native girls into sexual slavery. Young girls of the ages 9 to 10 were the most desired by his men. In 1500, Columbus casually wrote about it in his log. He said: “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.”

    “He forced these peaceful natives work in his gold mines until they died of exhaustion. If an “Indian” worker did not deliver his full quota of gold dust by Columbus’ deadline, soldiers would cut off the man’s hands and tie them around his neck to send a message. Slavery was so intolerable for these sweet, gentle island people that at one point, 100 of them committed mass…

  • It’s too easy to judge 15th century men by 21st century standards. The truth is that human history is ugly no matter where you dig. Aztec atrocities, the Roman enslavement and murder of countless Europeans, the trail of blood left by the Greeks, the Persians, the Chinese etc etc all throughout history.

    If there is a story here it is that of the “indigenous” people who want to cherry pick history to make it seem like violence, enslavement, et al can be laid solely at the feet of Europeans.

  • It really should be Leif Erickson Day, but the problem is that the Danish and Icelandic population of the US is pitifully small. Erickson’s band of vikings did not stay very long either.

    Italian-Americans number about 18 million. Columbus was followed by 4 centuries of colonization by all European powers. So Columbus Day it is.

  • That’s partly it, Larry, but the more immediate and practical reason is that there was a gap of hundreds of years between Leif Erickson’s arrival and real colonization, whereas in the case of Columbus, his arrival led immediately to colonization and subsequent development.

  • I don’t think that my education was any different than that of most mid-19th century children. We were taught all about WWI but there was only a brief message about WWII. Why? Because the history and geography books were printed before the war ended. As far as pre-colonized and early colonization in America, it focused on the subjugation of the natives by the colonists not on the social structures that they lived in. I would never have known that there were actually matriarchal tribes and many other fascinating facts.
    Columbus may have been a man of his time with vision of a “round” world and the guts to explore it, but, as Larry states, Leif Ericsson was the first to touch North American shores so if any explorer were to be honored, it should be he.