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Goodbye, Columbus: Today Is Not a Holiday in Colorado

Denver's Columbus Day protest in 2007.
Denver's Columbus Day protest in 2007.
Sean Cronin

Today is Columbus Day in those states that still celebrate the federal holiday on the second Monday of October.

Colorado is no longer one of them, even though this was the first state to officially observe Columbus Day, making it a holiday in 1907. After several earlier attempts, Colorado lawmakers finally voted to abolish Columbus Day early in the 2020 session, and on March 20, Governor Jared Polis signed a law officially abolishing the holiday in this state. Instead, on October 5, the first Monday of the month, Colorado observed the first Frances Xavier Cabrini Day, honoring Mother Cabrini, the Italian immigrant whose good deeds cannot be disputed.

For years, Denver was the site of protests over Columbus Day, with organizers arguing that the explorer was no one to honor. Glenn Morris, currently director of the University of Colorado Denver's 4th World Center for the Study of Indigenous Law and Politics, was active in those demonstrations, and sums up the objections with this: “First, it is a holiday that celebrates Columbus, who was an African slave trader and who then also began the genocide against indigenous peoples in the Caribbean. He deserves no holidays, statues, or celebrations. Second, Columbus Day celebrates the invasion and colonization of the Americas, through the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, which is a U.S. legal doctrine that justifies the theft of Indigenous peoples’ territories and the destruction of indigenous nations to the present time.”

In ending the observation of Columbus Day, Colorado joined twelve other states as well as Washington, D.C., which had already dropped the federal holiday.

And Colorado was decades behind Denver in dumping Columbus Day, which switched it out for César Chávez Day, now an official city holiday on the last Monday of March. Because of that, when then-Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez offered an ordinance in 2016 making the second Monday of October Indigenous Peoples' Day in Denver, it did not come with any holiday perks. Councilwoman Jamie Torres will sponsor the fifth annual Indigenous Peoples' Day Proclamation at council tonight; she will also ask her colleagues to approve a land acknowledgment in the future. Here's the proposed wording:

The Denver City Council honors and acknowledges that the land on which we reside is the traditional territory of the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Peoples. We also recognize the 48 contemporary tribal nations that are historically tied to the lands that make up the state of Colorado.

We honor Elders past, present, and future, and those who have stewarded this land throughout generations. We also recognize that government, academic and cultural institutions were founded upon and continue to enact exclusions and erasures of Indigenous Peoples. May this acknowledgement demonstrate a commitment to working to dismantle ongoing legacies of oppression and inequities and recognize the current and future contributions of Indigenous communities in Denver.

A few other cities, including Boulder and Aspen, have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day; some states have, too.

The plaque honors Columbus; the sculpture was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci.
The plaque honors Columbus; the sculpture was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci.
Nell Salzman

Even before the Colorado Legislature voted to end Columbus Day, celebrations had been losing steam in the state. There was no Columbus Day parade in 2019, with members of the Italian-American community instead choosing to celebrate the event in other ways. They're taking the same approach this year, focusing on projects that include finding a place to reinstall the statue dedicated to Columbus that was toppled in Civic Center Park in June. Donated to the city in 1970, the statue by William Joseph was actually inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, according to the artist's son.

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And there's another fight on the horizon in northwest Denver: whether to change the name of what's officially known as Columbus Park to La Raza Park.

Goodbye, Columbus.

Update: This story has been updated to include Denver City Councilwoman Jamie Torres's proclamation tonight.

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