Americans grapple with legacy of Columbus and newly proclaimed Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Monday’s U.S. holiday dedicated to Christopher Columbus is highlighting the ongoing divide between those who view the explorer as a representative of Italian Americans’ history and those horrified by an annual tribute that ignores the Indigenous people whose lives and culture were forever changed by colonialism.

Spurred by national calls for racial equity, communities across the U.S. took a deeper look at Columbus’s legacy in recent years — pairing or replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day.

On Friday, President Joe Biden issued the first presidential proclamation of “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Columbus.

But activists, including members of Native American tribes, said ending the formal holiday in Columbus’s name has been stymied by politicians and organizations focusing on Italian American heritage.

“The opposition has tried to paint Columbus as a benevolent man, similar to how white supremacists have painted Robert E. Lee,” said Les Begay, Dine Nation member and co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition of Illinois, referring to the Civil War general who led the Confederate Army.

Columbus’s arrival began centuries of exploration and colonization by European nations, bringing violence, disease and other suffering to native people already living in the Western Hemisphere.

“Not honouring Indigenous peoples on this day just continues to erase our history, our contributions and the fact that we were the first inhabitants of this country,” Begay said.

This June 17, 2020 photo shows Philadelphia police at Marconi Plaza near the Columbus statue in Philadelphia. Some people in the United States interpret such moves as an attack on Italian-American heritage. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Across the country, tension over the two holidays has been playing out since the early 1990s. Debates over monuments and statues of the Italian explorer tread similar ground, as in Philadelphia where the city placed a box over a Columbus statue last year in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. Protesters opposing racial injustice and police brutality against people of colour rallied for months in summer 2020.

Philadelphia lawyer George Bochetto, who has been fighting Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration to uncover the statue, said Saturday many felt efforts to remove it were an attack on Italian-American heritage.

Kenney previously signed an executive order changing the city’s annual Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. Monday will be the first city holiday under the new name.

“We have a mayor that’s doing everything he can to attack the Italian American community, including cancelling its parade, removing statues, changing the Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day by fiat,” Bochetto said.

Kenney spokesperson Kevin Lessard said the statue should remain boxed up “in the best interest and public safety of all Philadelphians.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day proclaimed in some parts of U.S.

In 2016, Lincoln, Neb., joined other cities adding Indigenous Peoples’ Day to the calendar on the same date as Columbus Day. Events on Monday will focus on the newer addition, including unveiling a statue honouring the first Native American physician, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte.

Some feel a split day causes further harm. Activists plan a small protest outside the Robert V. Denney Federal Building, calling for an outright end to the holiday in Columbus’s name at all levels of government.

“It’s patently absurd to honour Indigenous people and the man who tortured and murdered their ancestors,” said Jackson Meredith, an organizer. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re going to keep protesting it until Columbus Day is abolished.”

In New York City, the annual Columbus Day Parade returns after a one-year, in-person absence attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. The parade is touted by some as the world’s largest Columbus Day celebration.

In May, Italian American activists complained after the Board of Education erased Christopher Columbus Day from the New York City school calendar, replacing it with “Indigenous People’s Day.” Following the outcry, the schools changed the designation to: “Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day.” Mayor Bill de Blasio said he supported the compromise.

Columbus Day parade returns to Chicago

Chicago’s annual Columbus Day parade also returns Monday after the pandemic forced 2020’s cancellation of the event that draws 20,000 people. It’s a vivid reminder of the ongoing fight over three statues of Columbus, still warehoused by the city after protesters targeted them in summer 2020.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot in July 2020 ordered the statues removed and said demonstrations were endangering protesters and police.

In this July 24, 2020, file photo, a work crew removes the Columbus statue in Chicago’s Grant Park in Chicago. The city will host a Columbus Day parade on Monday. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune via AP)

She later created a committee to review monuments in the city, including the fate of Columbus monuments. No plans have been announced publicly, but the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans that plans the Columbus Day parade this summer sued the city’s park district, demanding that one be restored.

Illinois in 2017 designated the last Monday in September as Indigenous Peoples Day but kept Columbus Day on the second Monday of October. A proposal to replace Columbus Day filed this year hasn’t received any action.

Chicago Public Schools in 2020 voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, provoking outrage from several aldermen and Italian American groups. The city’s holiday calendar still lists Columbus Day.

Begay, the Indigenous Peoples Day advocate, said the organization decided to focus on changing Columbus Day first in Cook County, hoping it would be an easier path than convincing state or Chicago officials. But so far, members of the county’s board haven’t lined up behind the proposal.

“Why are 500-plus years still forgotten?” Begay said. “Why don’t we have this single day to recognize these horrible atrocities committed against native people?”

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