Columbus Day conflict may move to cyberspace

DENVER – For the first time a city agency has taken an open, if cautious, position against the existing celebration of Columbus Day, which traditionally triggers street protests near the state capitol.

“Our Denver community could join the growing chorus of tribal nations and other Native and non-Native entities that choose to honor the continent’s original residents and its vital, pre-1492 history,” the Denver American Indian Commission posted on its Web site ahead of the Columbus Day parade Oct. 10.

The DAIC’s action was approved by the city’s Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations, under which the commission advocates for public policies favorable to the American Indian community.

As it stands, the Columbus Day holiday “reinforces the inaccurate notion that North America came into being in 1492, when ‘uncivilized’ Native inhabitants appeared only to play a short-lived role in the founding myth, and soon vanished into history,” the posting states, noting there is increasing knowledge and awareness of complex pre-Columbian cultures.

The head of the human rights agency, Lucia Guzman, said Sept. 28 the open statement may be one of the “kinds of actions that I am hopeful will bring a better understanding of the issues that the Columbus Day celebration brings to the Indian people – hopefully, this is a good way to respond to that event and move to a better place.”

Ernest House Jr., executive secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs and a DAIC member, said the move “may be a way to obtain a better working relationship between DAIC and the (Columbus Day) parade organizers.”

“It’s not only about raising awareness within our local area, but for all tribes and nations, basically – it’s nice that the whole community can pull together, even though we may be separated (geographically),” Donna Johnson, DAIC chair, explained. DAIC’s home page cites nine tribes, three cities, five states and other entities that have abandoned or changed the Columbus Day holiday, and the commission is certain there are many others.

Not all reactions to the Web site’s message were favorable.

Glenn Morris, of the leadership council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado, has headed up two decades of meetings, colloquies, mediated sessions, and street protests against honoring Christopher Columbus, whom he terms a “slave-trading Indian killer.”

“Columbus Day began in Denver and we are going to resist the racist mayor, legislature and beyond until Native people are respected in our own homeland.

“The city, state, and federal government continue to deliberately ignore the racist, anti-Indian core of Columbus Day and Columbus’ celebration. Columbus Day is directly linked to the Doctrine of Discovery in U.S. law. That racist doctrine harms Indians on a daily basis from the Arctic to Western Shoshone to the Amazon.”

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who was not readily available for comment, has in the past endorsed a Festival Italiano and a Four Directions/All Nations March as alternatives to Columbus Day and its controversy.

This year’s festival took place Sept. 19 – 20 and the march was mentioned for possible revival this year among members of Denver’s communities of color for the eve of the Columbus Day parade.

Johnson presented the DAIC position to Denver’s Human Rights/Community Relations advisory panel, which includes the city’s commissions for African-American, Asian Pacific-American, Aging, GLBT, Latino, People with Disabilities, and women’s target populations, all of which supported it, she said.

Last year, the DAIC’s sister commissions declined to fully endorse a request that the city distance itself from observances that negatively impact target groups, so the proposal couldn’t be submitted to the mayor or City Council. Instead, negotiations were held with Columbus Day parade organizers to ensure that U.S. Cavalry look-alikes wouldn’t participate in the parade as they had in the past, evoking the specter of historical massacres.

Denver has a long history of Columbus Day opposition, including mass arrests and events that have varied from the spilling of ceremonial blood on the street to an overnight encampment across from the Capitol underwritten by traditional societies of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and the Oglala Lakota band of the Tetuwan Oyate.

Dissent has not come cheap. Some of those who opposed the parade in 2008 were subjected to “pain compliance” during arrest and the cost to them in legal fees and to the city for policing and prosecuting parade-related offenses has been hefty.

Hickenlooper wrote Morris and Sons of Italy parade organizer George Vendegnia in 2005 that he was “sick and tired of this entire costly, frustrating and potentially dangerous situation that does nothing but generate ill will,” citing the “hundreds and thousands of dollars” spent by the city on parade security and on the prosecution of opponents.

The DAIC said the opportunity to transform Columbus Day into a tribute to Indian America is one “we can’t take lightly,” because “our present and future generations view their culture and themselves as being directly affected by how we celebrate our history.”

The commission also joined the Episcopal Church in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, which the DAIC termed an “inadequate excuse offered by the early Christian Church for the brutal Columbian invasion and theft of Native homelands” and the basis for subsequent laws and policies that damage Native North America today.

The DAIC, which functions under the Human Rights/Community Relations Agency, is composed of representatives from various Native groups in the Denver metro area and others. Appointments to the commission are approved by the mayor and City Council.

Colorado in 1907 became the first state to observe Columbus Day as a holiday.