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Beyond Columbus Day: Changing the Name Is Just the First Step

Indigenous Peoples’ Day needs to recognize the horrors of the past and the oppression in the present.

Rene Roman Nose addresses the crowd during a celebration marking Indigenous Peoples' Day at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center on October 13, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. Earlier that afternoon, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signed a resolution designating the second Monday in October to be Indigenous Peoples' Day.

On Wednesday, October 3, the Cincinnati city council joined a growing trend when it voted to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It is now one of more than 70 cities across the country to do so. The first was Berkeley, California, which adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 1992, in recognition of the 500year anniversary of the European arrival in the Western Hemisphere and the ensuing devastation to Indigenous nations already here in what became known as the Americas.

Other cities that have made the change include Los Angeles, Seattle and Phoenix, as well as states like Minnesota, South Dakota and Alaska, which have significant Native American and Alaskan Native populations. In 2017, the island country of Trinidad and Tobago made the change after a statue of Columbus was splattered in blood-colored paint. A grassroots group called the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project posted an explanation for the vandalism on Facebook at the time, explaining that the painting was soaked in red to protest the celebration of the “Genocidal Genovese Sailor” who “decimated the first peoples of the Americas, destroyed their way of life, then turned around and denied their humanity.”

There are rumors of more cities, including Dallas, Texas, following suit by today. More than 90 different entities (including cities, counties, colleges, universities, states and one country) have changed from honoring Columbus to honoring Indigenous people — at least in name — since 1990.

“I think history tells us that Christopher Columbus was not a good representation of the kind of people we’d want to value and appreciate,” said Chris Seelbach, a Cincinnati councilman, when explaining his vote. He also tweeted, “We can’t re-write history, but we can acknowledge the millions of people who didn’t need to be ‘discovered.'”

This year, the city of Los Angeles will also be celebrating its inaugural Indigenous Peoples’ Day after having voted last year to make the change. I interviewed Chrissie Castro, a Navajo activist who, as vice chairperson of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, helped get the change approved, on my podcast show “Not Your Disappearing Indian.”

In the interview, Castro describes what happened at the meetings that were mandated by the city council between the Native community and the Italian-American community to discuss the potential change. At the first meeting, a large group of Italian Americans came. The Italian-American community began celebrating Columbus Day in Denver, Colorado, in 1907. However, after Native activists read aloud excerpts from Columbus’s diary detailing the atrocities he and his men committed against the Indigenous people of the Caribbean, most were shocked. They admitted they were never told he did those things. Despite 100 years of celebrating the man, the Italian-American community members who attended the meeting seemed to know little about him or about what actually happened when Columbus got to the “New World.” Castro says at the next meeting, less than half returned to defend him.

By the time they got to the city council vote in August 2017, only a handful of community members remained defiant and defensive of the “Great Admiral of the Ocean Sea” (the title Columbus requested for himself from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1492). Columbus also demanded to be appointed governor of all lands he discovered and given one-tenth of all revenue and one-eighth of the profits from any commercial venture from those lands in perpetuity. Neither Trump nor his father could have finagled a better deal.

I have detailed some of this history and the hell on earth Columbus and his men created on the beautiful island homelands of the Lucayan, Taíno and Arawak people in my article “Goodbye, Columbus.” The peaceful people were worked to death. Their hands were cut off if they did not bring him enough gold. Mothers murdered their own children to save them from the horror their world had become. Writing in his diary, Columbus described how the world he had wrought condemned young girls into sexual slavery, “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.”

“Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel,” wrote Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Spanish colonist and historian. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”

Given the horrors enacted in the past and the ongoing oppression in the present, changing the name of a holiday is not enough for many Native people. Diné anarchist and filmmaker Klee Benally tweeted the same day as the Cincinnati council vote, “#IndigenousPeoplesDay is meaningless when a city like #Flagstaff can pass a resolution while perpetuating & benefiting from our cultural genocide. #indigenousresistance will never be state-sanctioned. #abolishcolumbusdayforreal.”

Flagstaff, Arizona, which borders the vast Navajo Nation, finally passed a resolution last week to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day (IPD) after three years of debate. The sticking point was city council member Eva Putzova’s request that the city conduct a review of how well it has implemented a 2012 Memorandum of Understanding with the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. The formal agreement was meant to foster “better race relations,” but at the time of the name change, little action had been taken to progress toward that goal.

Native activists are still frustrated about how little has been done by the city to meaningfully reach the goals agreed upon in that Memorandum of Understanding. Benally says he opposed Flagstaff’s resolution proclaiming Indigenous Peoples’ Day last week because “the initial conditions [review of the memorandum] were not met at all.” Activists will be demonstrating today, in part in “rejection of their window-dressing IPD.”

In urban settings far from their homelands, Native people and their nations are not on the radar for most city governments. Acknowledgement once a year is helpful to begin to build a relationship and recognition with municipal leaders but is not guaranteed. And the fight to get even this holiday name change has left some exasperated.

“Texas has a dark history of wanting to kill off all the Indigenous people here in the past,” Yolanda Blue Horse of Dallas, a member of the Lakota Nation, told Truthout. She is grateful that Texan cities are finally getting rid of a day that recognizes a murderer, but says, “People should look up why the Texas Rangers (which is still in existence but mainly now another arm of law enforcement) were originally created.”

Still, many see the name change as a beginning. To Guy Jones, Lakota activist and one of the founders of the Miami Valley Council for Native Americans in Dayton, Ohio, changing the name of Columbus Day “is a doorway that opens up to people who know themselves,” allowing for the reclamation of Indigenous histories.

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