Goodbye, Columbus: Happy Indigenous People's Day, Denver

Colorado was the first state to make Columbus Day an official holiday, in 1907. And today, many state offices will be closed to mark what remains a national holiday, after the feds followed Colorado's lead in 1937. But in Denver, we'll be marking Indigenous People's Day.

Last week, Denver City Council members unanimously approved making the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples' Day. This isn't an an official holiday — years ago, council ducked the Columbus Day controversy by switching out that then-holiday for Cesar Chavez Day, observed every March 27 — so parking meters won't be free, trash will be picked up and Denver City Council will meet tonight. But council members will be following their scheduled agenda, not dealing with protesters.

The big protests over Columbus Day started more than two decades ago in Denver, when plans to resurrect the annual Columbus Day Parade were protested by Native American groups and other activists who considered Columbus Day a celebration of genocide — and the Italian organizers fought back. "This isn't your country anymore," one told Colorado AIM's Glenn Morris in 1992. "This is our country now, so get with the program."

Instead, the parade opponents got with the protests, and Columbus Day confrontations became annual sights in Denver, with demonstrators regularly shutting down the parade and then getting arrested — only to have the charges later dropped. But the mass arrests — a record 88 — peaked in 2007, and after that, participation in both the parade and the protests dwindled, with the focus moving to renaming the holiday.

Denver was two months behind Boulder in making the switch to Indigenous People's Day. But the movement here started more than a decade ago, when the Transform Columbus Day Alliance — a collection of more than eighty groups ranging from the All African People's Revolutionary Party to the Colorado Medical Committee for Human Rights, a collection of dissidents called Progressive Italians to Transform the Columbus Holiday (PITCH), the New Jewish Agenda and Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism — sent an open letter to then-mayor John Hickenlooper, calling on him 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."

Instead, the parade itself was transformed, with a new generation taking over and regrouping. For that matter, the anti-Columbus group has also gone through changes, with younger leaders emerging. "Those of us who have been around for a while, we’re more than willing to take a slower pace and to let other people lead," Morris says. "That’s long overdue. We welcome that. It’s always inspiring and encouraging to see that fire in younger people to keep the struggle that their ancestors fought so that they could be here to keep that alive."

And so on Saturday, a small Columbus Day parade — a shadow of what the parade used to be — wound through downtown, undisturbed and largely unseen, though organizers vow to bring it back to its former glory.

A few hours later, hundreds of participants in the Four Directions All Nations March descended on the State Capitol, where they listened to speakers — and vowed to keep fighting until Columbus Day is banned from all fifty states, including Colorado, the state that first made it a holiday.
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun