A New Frontier

About fifty activists gathered late last month inside the Four Winds Survival Project building, a former Episcopal church now serving as a kind of town hall for Denver's Native American community, to plan what they say will be a memorable protest of Denver's annual Columbus Day Parade.

It's a yearly conflict that protest organizers like Glenn Morris have been engaged in since 1990, when a local Italian group revived the parade after a thirty-year hiatus ("War of the Word," October 6, 2005). And on October 6, the conglomeration of lefty and American Indian groups known as the Transform Columbus Day Alliance will once again converge downtown to beat drums, wave banners and denounce Christopher Columbus as a symbol of genocide and racism.

Despite their persistence, the protestors haven't accomplished much in those seventeen years. Morris, a high-ranking member of the American Indian Movement of Colorado, points out that some of the children who attended those early actions with their parents are now adults with kids of their own.

But this protest could be different, and the September 24 meeting was buzzing with anticipation. Heads of various protest "departments" stood to report on everything from the street-medic team (first-aid training was going well) to the squad of legal observers (just look for the bright-green hats). Pamphlets were passed around detailing the legal procedures involved in being arrested, from booking to bonding to trial. It was announced that a private security crew would be provided by Colorado AIM.

One important change this year is that TCD organizers have chosen not to meet with police beforehand to work out the ground rules for peaceful "orchestrated arrests," as they did in 2004. About 240 demonstrators were arrested that year for blocking the parade route by sitting in the streets.

Additionally, because this is the 100-year anniversary of the holiday, hundreds of activists are expected to travel to Denver from San Francisco, New York and severals out-of-state Indian reservations. A few are also flying in from other countries to take part.

Some of those groups may be planning "direct action" confrontations — a clear escalation in the type of engagement TCD has employed in the past. The group's leadership acknowledges that they are undertaking a shift in strategy. Toward what, exactly, no one is willing to say.

One thing that is clear is that younger activists within the anti-Columbus movement are questioning whether official political channels hold any promise for their cause. "We've lost our moral currency with young Indian people," Morris said a week after the meeting. Over lunch with Colorado AIM associates Tink Tinker and Mark Freeland, Morris elaborated: "We've asked them to be patient and patient and patient, year after year. Young Indian people are now saying to us, we like you, we respect you, we love you, but something's not working here. It's our turn now."

Morris says that over the years, activists have appealed to Mayor Hickenlooper, city council members and the governor's office, to no avail. The final straw for many in the local anti-Columbus movement was the failure of legislation to change the name of Columbus Day in Colorado, he adds.

State senator Suzanne Williams of Denver, a registered member of the Comanche tribe in Oklahoma, began drafting a bill in 2006, but its introduction was blocked so quickly by fellow Democrats that she didn't even have a chance to come up with an alternative name for Columbus Day.

"We never could come to consensus on what the best language would be for Colorado," Senator Williams says. "I did offer a resolution later on in the spring, but it was not well received, either."

Though she has abandoned the bill, Williams says she is working with Governor Bill Ritter to plan a public forum on the issue later this fall.

Freeland, who worked on the failed campaign, sees that as more political lip service. "It essentially means that the political route is a closed door," he says. "There's only a pretense of discussion. We can't even get the debate going. If we're completely silenced at that point, where are we going to go? Where is that energy going to go?"

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Jared Jacang Maher