War of the Word

Denver's Columbus Day Parade rhetoric spells out the same bumpy route.

Denver's Columbus Day dispute reaches back five centuries -- or, depending on your point of view, to 1990. That year, the Federation of Italian American Organizations announced plans to revive the march after three decades. But talks between the Federation and Colorado AIM about the name and orientation of the parade failed -- the first of many communication breakdowns between the antagonists -- despite an offer by event planners to let protesters march at the front of the parade, carrying counter-Columbus banners.

At the 1991 parade, four AIM members -- Ward Churchill, Glenn Morris, Margaret Martinez and Russell Means -- were arrested after blocking the route; they were later acquitted. In 1992 (the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage to America), half a dozen mediation sessions involving the U.S. Department of Justice, Mayor Wellington Webb, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and the warring parties came to little, but at the last minute, the Italian Federation canceled the parade when more than 3,500 activists supporting the Native Americans gathered to confront the marchers.

AIM activists
Mark Manger
AIM activists
George Vendegnia resurrected the Columbus Day 
Mark Manger
George Vendegnia resurrected the Columbus Day parade.

And there the flap might have ended, but for George Vendegnia and his associate, C.M. Mangiaracina. In 1995, Vendegnia formed a new chapter of the Sons of Italy, called New Generation, with an eye to reviving Columbus Day here for the second time in the decade. So fixed were they on the idea that Vendegnia and other Sons of Italy members camped outside a city office for more than a month to obtain a parade permit.

Once more, talks about the focus of the holiday failed -- Vendegnia broke an agreement to rename the parade, Indian activists say -- and after an eight-year hiatus, another parade was finally held in October 2000. That year, 150 protesters were arrested after blockading the route; the charges were later dropped.

Plans for a 2001 parade were curtailed after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington -- as it happened, twenty schoolchildren recited a rosary in honor of the dead and quietly went home. But in 2003 and 2004, tempers rose again as the two sides renewed their debate over the symbolism of Columbus Day, the constitutional rights of the parties and the tides of history.

At bottom, the entire battle still turns on one word: Columbus. It's the name of cities in Ohio and Georgia, a major artery in San Francisco, a traffic-clogged thoroughfare in Manhattan and countless other sites, large and small. It's the name that President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 asked the 48 United States to celebrate each October, and the name that compelled Richard Nixon to declare Columbus Day a full-fledged federal holiday in 1971. But Christopher Columbus is also the name of a monster, Native Americans say -- a man who slaughtered and enslaved their people, pioneered Western chauvinism and fomented a bogus "Doctrine of Discovery" that survives to this day. Since the 1970s, many historians have sharply altered traditional schoolroom teachings on Columbus's legacy as the man who "discovered" America, and seventeen states have passed laws changing the name (and concept) of Columbus Day.

But that revisionism falls on deaf ears where Denver's Columbus Day Parade Committee is concerned. "I don't care how they want to rewrite history," Vendegnia says. "Columbus was just a great navigator, and I'll debate that with anybody."

One Thursday night last month, members of the Columbus Day Parade Committee, representing eight Italian-American organizations, gathered for their weekly meeting at the vintage Valente's Italian Restaurant in Wheat Ridge. In a modest yet attractive dining room decorated with bunches-of-grapes wallpaper, they discussed such matters as a $1 million liability insurance policy for parade day, the polite refusal of a Shriners group to appear in this year's event "after some heated debate," the cost of Italian-flag lapel pins at 79 cents or 97 cents per pin. (Since this isn't a big-budget organization, one man volunteered to have his company donate several hundred of them.)

Then came the suggestion, from a voice in the back of the room, that while Denver police "are not willing to beat protesters into submission" on parade day, maybe dogs and tear gas will be okay. After that, someone else muttered that Patrol Division Chief Steve Cooper, who has met with the committee, is "a putz." From there the agenda sailed on into a complaint that the Denver Catholic Register has refused to publicize the parade and that marchers may be delayed even longer this year than last because of an increased number of arrests. On the other hand, someone offered, the ongoing Ward Churchill affair has so divided the Indian activist community that there may not be any protests.

"Of course," another voice said, "people like Glenn Morris and Ward Churchill aren't real Indians, anyway. They're Indian wannabes."

Following the regular business of the meeting, parade organizers willingly submitted to questions. The tone of their answers ranged from proud to aggrieved to angry, but one sentiment was unanimous. Asked if anyone present -- seventeen or eighteen people -- would be willing to compromise on the name of the Columbus Day parade, committee members flooded the room with a collective, sustained "No!"

Mickie Lava Clayton, an Italian-American from Brooklyn, New York, who has lived in Denver since 1953 and serves as the state manager of the National Italian American Council, was as combative as anyone in her defense of the holiday. "A bunch of radicals started to make up these stories about Columbus," she said. "He was no better and no worse than anybody in his era, and to judge Columbus by the standards of today is the most ridiculous thing. It gives meaning to the notion that we've educated people way beyond their own intelligence."

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