Colorado's War of the Words Continues Over Columbus Day

Colorado's War of the Words Continues Over Columbus DayEXPAND
Jay Vollmar
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On Saturday, October 6, Denver’s annual Columbus Day Parade will start at West 14th Avenue and Bannock Street. It won’t need much space: The parade is far smaller than it was many decades ago, when it was a major point of Italian-American pride before it took a three-decade break in 1960; or 28 years ago, when a revived parade became the target of protests by the Native American community that resulted in numerous arrests; or even two years ago, when young activists with the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement, energized by opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, organized the peaceful Four Directions March not just as an objection to Columbus Day, but as an action in solidarity with indigenous people everywhere.

This year’s Columbus Day Parade will have just four floats. Only the Pinta and Santa Maria will appear; the Niña needs to be rebuilt. “We are going to have our parade, more of a boutique, but it’s still extremely meaningful,” says Rita DeFrange, who’s been organizing the activities. Since the Knights of Columbus are busy with related festivities, the Boy Scouts will present the colors; entertainer Russ Canino will launch into a rendition of “God Bless America” from the Sons of Italy float; and then the parade will stop in front of the Colorado State Capitol at 11 a.m. for a reading of the presidential proclamation for the 2018 federal holiday.

Last year, Presidential Donald Trump’s proclamation included this: “The permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation. Therefore, on Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions — even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity.”

Native Americans would argue that the adversity faced by newcomers to this continent pales in comparison to the terrors they inflicted on indigenous peoples, including slavery and genocide. And argue they did, so vehemently that national mediators came to town in 1992, before the parade marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, to try to bring the two sides together. They didn’t succeed. “This isn’t your country anymore,” one told Colorado AIM’s Glenn Morris. “This is our country now, so get with the program.” Instead, over 3,000 protesters gathered in Denver that day, inspiring a last-second cancellation of the parade, which did not return for another eight years.

When John Hickenlooper was mayor of Denver, the clash between protesters and the parade reached critical mass. In 2004, the year that then-congressman Tom Tancredo was the grand marshal, 230 demonstrators were arrested, including controversial University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who was subsequently acquitted by a jury.

Protests in 2007, the hundred-year anniversary of Colorado making Columbus Day a holiday.
Protests in 2007, the hundred-year anniversary of Colorado making Columbus Day a holiday.
Sean Cronin

Most of the other charges were dropped, but not before the city paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars for extra police presence. The next year, the Transform Columbus Day Alliance asked Hickenlooper to “take the next logical step by publicly denouncing the parade and asking the organizers to end this offensive celebration, and by supporting legislation at the state level to end the Columbus Day holiday.”

The Columbus Day holiday that Colorado was the very first state to approve, in 1907, 37 years before President Franklin Roosevelt made it a federal holiday, back when Italian-Americans in Colorado were definitely the victims of discrimination and worse. Italians weren’t subjected to the same treatment in 2005, though, and Hickenlooper was never able to get all the parties to the table when he was mayor.

But this summer, now in his last year as governor, Hickenlooper was ready to make another attempt, proposing that an advisory panel travel the state, organizing discussions between Native Americans, Italian-Americans and just about anyone else who might have an opinion about what, exactly, to do with Columbus Day. History Colorado was charged with providing the logistics, but there simply wasn’t enough time. “To do this in an authentic way, we need to have a lot of conversation, and it would take more time than we had in the schedule,” says History Colorado executive director Steve Turner. "This is going to take at least a year."

Ernest House, the outgoing executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, has held some preliminary conversations around the state about changing the holiday. “The concept was there, but there needs to be a lot of conversation — from both sides — similar to what we had with Sand Creek,” he says, referring to the Governor’s Sand Creek Massacre Commemorative Commission, which met for months before the December 2014 ceremony at the Capitol to mark the 150th anniversary of the November 29, 1864, slayings, a ceremony at which Hickenlooper formally apologized on behalf of the state to descendants of the massacre.

In 2014, Governor John Hickenlooper apologized to the descendents of the Sand Creek Massacre.
In 2014, Governor John Hickenlooper apologized to the descendents of the Sand Creek Massacre.
Brandon Marshall

The controversy over Columbus “is not going away, and quite frankly, it shouldn’t go away,” House adds, noting that some Colorado communities have already grappled with it. Boulder replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in 2016; Denver did the same that year, but by then Columbus Day was no longer an official holiday in the city, since Denver had already swapped it out to add César Chávez Day. Salida has already named a mountain for Chief Ouray's wife, and Summit County is talking about changing the Gore Range, named for an Englishman, to honor a Native American.

And Representative Adrienne Benavidez is ready to go another round at the Colorado Legislature, where she’s tried to say goodbye to Columbus Day before. “I was very hopeful from last session, in that it did pass the House committee and was set for a second reading,” she recalls. That bill would have replaced Colorado’s Columbus Day holiday with a new Election Day holiday, one that everyone in the state could celebrate and that would have the added benefit of giving people more chance to participate in the voting process. But after a task force was added to that proposal, the bill died in Appropriations.

“Some of the testimony was to keep Columbus Day, that it was intended to recognize Italians and their contributions in Colorado,” Benavidez recalls. But none of the state’s ten official holidays actually recognizes a particular group. Three are for individuals: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day and Columbus Day, “which honors an individual who never set foot in the United States,” she points out.

While Benavidez says she appreciates the contributions of Italian-Americans in Colorado, “quite frankly, Columbus is not the kind of person we should emulate, whom we should revere with a holiday. ... Every time it’s come up in the legislature, there’s been testimony that this really hurts people, particularly children. Why would we continue to do that?”

The Four Directions March in 2016.
The Four Directions March in 2016.
Kyle Harris

Good question. Outgoing representative Joe Salazar was honored at the 2016 Four Directions ceremony for his work pushing through a proposal regarding school mascots that offended Native Americans. However, his attempts to eliminate Columbus Day were not only unsuccessful, but “out of all the bills that I ran, I have never received as many death threats, as much hate mail,” he says. At one point, he had worked out a compromise to get the holiday’s name changed to Italian-American Heritage Day. Italian-Americans faced enormous discrimination when they started coming to the United States, so they tried to find something that would show they were contributors, and gravitated to Colombus Day," he explains. "I can respect the fact that they were so discriminated against." But the deal fell through, and the Columbus Day name remains.

“I really feel the Colorado Legislature has done a disservice to the American Indian community,” Salazar says. “They just don’t want to face up to the fact that crimes against humanity are going on today.” Since he won’t be in the legislature next session, Salazar will use another way to make them face facts: his in-the-works book. Right now he’s working on a chapter called “The Reckoning,” which focuses on indigenous peoples. Both of his grandmothers were indigenous, he notes.

Glenn Morris at the 2012 protest.
Glenn Morris at the 2012 protest.
Sam Levin

While DeFrange says the parade has been “extremely quiet from the protesting perspective” since she took over, she recognizes that Columbus Day is probably on borrowed time. She spoke with Benavidez about her holiday-swap proposal last session, and is interested in working with whatever state task force takes on this hot topic. “We need to get around a table; we need to talk,” she says. “We’re judging someone who is 500-plus years old by today’s standards.”

And on that, Benavidez agrees.

“He was a man of his times. That does not mean we have to emulate him or raise him up...and that’s what we’re effectively doing,” she says. “To their credit, the indigenous communities have not been asking that the state have an Indigenous Peoples Day. Their point is that we should not be honoring Christopher Columbus. He’s responsible for what his men did, what he allowed to happen...and that was killing thousands and thousands of people.

“People are changing their attitudes,” she concludes. “Our bill last year listed the number of cities and states that have done away with Columbus Day. Colorado should be at the forefront of that. We should not be continuing to say it’s okay to recognize someone with that kind of history behind them.”

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