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Ground Zero for Columbus Day
Michael a. de Yoanna
W. michael byrd and linda a. Clayton
ICFTU Global Day of Action â€¦
Miriam ching yoon Louie
Talking About Myths, Heroes, And â€¦
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Stephen R. Shalom
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Ground Zero for Columbus Day
Michael A. de Yoanna & Terje Langeland
This October, a conflict rooted in more than 500 years of American history will once again rear its head in Denver, Colorado. As Italian-Americans prepare to march in honor of Christopher Columbus, American Indians and their supporters, including anti-globalization activists, plan to confront the parade.
For Italian-Americans and their supporters, this year's parade represents a victory for the First Amendment, American patriotism, and Italian pride. Local Sons of Italy organizer George Vendegnia— who along with several others camped outside a city office for more than a month to obtain a parade permit—hopes as many as 15,000 supporters will converge in Denver to ensure the parade goes forward. He has lined up several powerful allies, including Colorado state Sen. Alice Nichol, an Italian-American, who will be the parade's grand marshal. Also expected to participate, Vendegnia says, is Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO).
Vendegnia has traveled to Chicago, New York, and Florida to meet with prominent Italian-American officials in an effort to raise money and lure participants. Many supporters are showing a keen interest in Denver because they fear American Indian protests will spread, he said.
For opponents, the parade represents a trashing of cross-cultural educational efforts and an assertion of Western chauvinism, leaving dim prospects for racial unity. To counter this message and transform Columbus Day into an event that recognizes America in its full diversity, indigenous and Chicana women are planning a weekend of multicultural celebrations, including a concert featuring several nationally recognized acts, and a massive march and rally for unity on Saturday, October 6.
Organizers hope the celebratory and educational nature of the events will reduce the emphasis on conflict and racial fragmentation. “Our whole effort is for the children, for them to learn the truth,” says Troylynn Yellow Wood, one of the organizers.
Still, come the following Monday, activists pledge to do what it takes to stop the Columbus Day parade. “AIM has consistently said, and our position remains, that anti-Indian hate speech should be confronted consistently, vigorously, and without apology,” says Colorado AIM leader Glenn Morris. Morris promises that as many as 15,000 protesters could show up.
Modern-day Columbus hoopla dates back to 1892, when a statue of Columbus was erected in New York City and the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago honored the colonial governor. It was the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas, and the celebrations came as the United States closed its frontier—an event that was soon followed by U.S. colonial expansion overseas.
“The country needed a symbol for its emergence on the world stage,” says Professor Bill Keegan of the University of Florida, who has studied Columbus for the past 20 years. “He seemed the perfect symbol—a man who triumphed over unspeakable odds to achieve his goals. What they forgot was that his gain was someone else's loss.”
American Indians hadn't forgotten. The memories of Wounded Knee and Colorado's Sand Creek Massacre—events that marked the beginning of the end of freedom for the Plains Indians—were still fresh.
According to Vendegnia, Columbus Day began as an assertion of American nationalism but became an expression of Italian-American pride in an era of discrimination against Italians. “You're an American first and an Italian second,” Vendegnia explains.
In 1905, the Italian-American community in Pueblo, Colorado held the state's first Columbus Day parade, and in 1907, Colorado was the first state in the union to make the holiday official. In 1934, President Roosevelt issued a proclamation asking the 48 states to observe Columbus Day in October, but it wasn't until 1971 that President Nixon made it a federal holiday.
Meanwhile, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War had begun to transform American society and AIM was beginning to challenge the way history was taught.
In 1990, tremors of pro- and anti-Columbus sentiment erupted in Denver when Italian-American groups said they wanted to permanently resurrect what were previously sporadic Columbus parades. Alarmed by the prospect, AIM activists, led by Russell Means, organized an educational campaign about Columbus.
Despite their efforts, a Columbus Day parade was held in 1990. Italians agreed to meet with Native Americans in the year to come, but the meeting never materialized. So in 1991, as another parade was set to take place, about 2,000 protesters showed up—300 of them blocking the parade route as others poured buckets of blood in the street. Four Indian activists were arrested: Means, Morris, Yellow Wood, and Ward Churchill.
In 1992, seeking to head off yet another confrontation as the big quincentenary bash was approaching, AIM leaders, Italian parade organizers, the city of Denver, and religious leaders attended several mediation sessions organized by the Community Relations Service division of the U.S. Department of Justice. However, Italians refused to give in to AIM's central demand that all references to Columbus be removed from the parade.
The failure of the talks brought an estimated 4,000 protesters out to confront the parade, which had drawn only about 100 participants. In the tense atmosphere, police said they couldn't guarantee the Italians' safety, and organizers canceled.
“That was it,” Morris says. He thought Indians and their supporters had won what they had wanted—ending Columbus Day parades in Denver for good.
Meanwhile, resentment was seething in the Italian-American community, Vendegnia says. “At that time, the people who were organizing the parade decided it was the safest route to forget it,” he says. “It was the worst thing they could have done.”
Vendegnia founded the Colorado chapter of the Sons of Italy New Generation in 1995. Over the next few years, he and others held “Columbus Day bazaars” at a Disabled American Veterans building, while harboring hopes that the parade could be revived.
Finally, last year C.M. Mangiaracina, Vendegnia's associate, obtained a parade permit from the city and promised a celebration come October.
The Justice Department once again summoned the parties and mediated a deal in which American Indians and their supporters agreed not to protest, in exchange for an agreement by Italian-Americans to drop references to Columbus and to march for “Italian pride.” The city of Denver also signed the document.
Morris called the agreement just and Means promised to march with Italians to honor Italian pride. A Justice Department official called the agreement “historic,” and the city promised peace would prevail. But within 24 hours, the deal was dead.
Vendegnia says the Italians only signed the deal to prove that the city of Denver and the federal government were prepared to trample on their First Amendment rights. He took the document to the American Civil Liberties Union, which held a press conference the following day supporting the Italians' right to hold a Columbus Day parade.
As part of the agreement, the city had said it would pull the Italians' parade permit should they decide to honor Columbus. As it turned out, “We couldn't,” says Andrew Hudson, a spokesperson for Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.
The parade went ahead, and more than 140 protesters were arrested for blocking the parade route, though their charges were later dropped.
The parties see little hope for a peaceful solution this year, even though one of the main Columbus organizers, Mangiaracina, appeared to have a change of heart in early August. Mangiaracina, who is the official holder of the parade permit, went to the Native American leaders and made a plea for peace, offering to march for Italian pride. But Vendegnia has denuonced his actions and has pledged the Columbus parade will go ahead as planned. Either way, Morris has expressed reluctance to negotiate with Mangiaracina again. “I don't have any interest in dealing with dishonorable people,” Morris said.
Hudson says the city won't try to mediate as long as no one wants to participate. “I think there's general consensus that both sides are pretty set in their ways,” Hudson says. “The city will do whatever we can to make sure that the parade can move forward, and that the protesters can protest.… I think that the city's responsibilities are to protect the constitutional rights of both sides.”
Though the breakdown in communication between the two sides reflects a deep disagreement over what Columbus Day symbolizes, there is less dispute over claims that Columbus killed and enslaved indigenous people.
“It's not really a matter that's in dispute,” says historian Howard Zinn. “The argument was never about whether Columbus did these things,” but rather about whether they were justifiable and whether indigenous people should be considered “full human beings.”
To present-day Columbus Day supporters, the atrocities Columbus may have committed are second to the significance of his 1492 trans-Atlantic voyage and the symbolism of the celebration.
“He is credited with the discovery of the Americas,” says Nichol. “What else he may have done, what bearing does it have today?” Though Columbus may have done things she would never support, she says, “it was the times.”
Zinn points out that Columbus atrocities were challenged by his contemporaries—people of conscience such as Jesuit priest Bartolomé de las Casas, who wrote a history objecting to Columbus's treatment of Indians, successfully calling on Spain to reform its ways.
But to Columbus Day organizers, the bottom-line is freedom of speech, not history. “If I wanted to walk down the street with the German people and heil Hitler, I should be able to do that,” Vendegnia says. “Not that I would.”
Meanwhile, opponents characterize Columbus celebrations as a form of hate speech not necessarily protected by the First Amendment. According to Morris, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation is about testing the limits of acceptable speech. Business owners no longer put up signs reading “no coloreds” and racial slurs are not permitted in the workplace. Both are examples of speech, Morris says.
“Woolworth's said it had a legal right to do business under an apartheid regime in Mississippi,” he says, referring to the practice of barring blacks from eating at lunch-counters alongside whites. It took active civil resistance to change the practice, he notes.
Just as Martin Luther King Jr. was viewed by some as an unpatriotic agitator, Morris says AIM must fight an unpopular battle to change people's minds. He says he's failed in his attempts to appeal to the Italians' sense of “common decency” by trying to explain how the parade offends Native Americans.
Parade organizers say they don't buy the argument that Indians are offended. Vendegnia says they are seeking to attract funding for political causes. “These people don't care about Christopher Columbus; don't let them kid you,” Vendegnia says. “It's a political thing for them. They want political power, they want political clout, and they want to get grants. The only way to get grants is to cry real loud.”
Nichol says the people protesting Columbus Day represent only a small group of “Indians, Hispanics and Jewish” activists—not the majority of Hispanics and Native Americans. “I think there's more to it than just being offended,” she says. “I'm looking for the reason behind this, the real reason.”
Zinn says he doesn't believe most Columbus Day celebrants are consciously advocating racism. Many of them, he argues, are simply “ignorant.” Some, however, may have more Machiavellian motives and may see celebration “as a way to cement patriotism,” he suggests.
“A celebration of Columbus celebrates imperialism,” Zinn says. “It celebrates the expansion across the West and the extinction of Indians. Many Americans,” Zinn says, “view the country's expansion and domination as a manifestation of greatness.”
Indeed, Vendegnia expresses such a view. “If it wasn't for us, the Native Americans and the Hispanics wouldn't be as educated as they are, they wouldn't be living in the most powerful country in the world and the most educated country in the world,” Vendegnia says. “Western culture is what developed the country over here.”
Morris says there are also political reasons why mainstream society sticks with the official version of history and continues to endorse Columbus through official holidays. “I really believe that it has to do with this settler-society psychology, or this culture-of- conquest psychology,” Morris says. “But it also has to do with, ‘What are the stakes?'”
In the African-American civil-rights struggle, the stakes are largely about inclusion in mainstream society, Morris says. But for American Indians, the struggle is about obtaining justice outside the dominant “settler society” while retaining cultural and national identities. A re-thinking of how the settler society was constructed is necessary, he says. “No one wants to deal with that question. It's the question of how the country was formed and what rationalizations were used.”
The most damning rationalizations came in the form of three Supreme Court verdicts under Chief Justice John Marshall that dramatically changed American Indian land rights. In the 1823 Johnson v Macintosh verdict, the court ruled that by reason of conquest, native lands became the property of the U.S. government and “Indians” were to be considered occupants. In 1831, the court ruled that tribes were “sovereign nations” but not “foreign nations,” setting up a “ward/guardian” relationship between Indians and the government.
The ruling ideology, based on Johnson v Macintosh, is “diametrically opposed” to Native Americans' perception of how the world ought to be, Morris says. The current struggle, he adds, is “about how the country will and should remember history (and) the future place we have in the world.”
The division over Columbus Day promises to be protracted. The two sides have vastly different views of what it would take to achieve peace and unity.
“The conflict will be resolved between the two communities just like it was with the white supremacists and Martin Luther King— give two permits,” Vendegnia said. “They have a right to have a protest and we have the right to have a parade.”
However, Vendegnia said he wants to see the protesters removed from the parade route. Nichol says she's looking forward to annual Columbus Day parades “for years to come.” She says everyone should follow the example of the Italian-Americans, who have integrated into mainstream society. “We are Americans, like everyone else should be,” Nichol says. “We should all assimilate.”
Keegan's vision of unity, meanwhile, is one that embraces a multicultural heritage. “After 1492, we have all shared one history,” Keegan says. “No matter what our background, we all have an African heritage, an Asian heritage, an American heritage, a European heritage. It is time that we acknowledged this. I am dismayed by the tendency to fragment, and by its most evil visage—ethnic cleansing. We have had 500 years of shared heritage—how much longer will we need to recognize it?”
To Zinn, Columbus Day is an opportunity to learn. “The most compelling reason” to protest the parade, he says, “is to educate the public and to make them aware of how barren the history education in this country is—and that the history, from Columbus on, is one of aggression against people.”
Americans, Morris says, need to recognize this history in order to change. “Are we going to be destroyed by history or changed by it?” he asks. “We need to transcend the racism, the sexism, the hatefulness, the classism. We need to transform that into a respectful, more inclusive and environmentally sustainable society.”
If anyone can accomplish it, says Means, it is the indigenous movement. “We are going to prove again and again that we can draw everyone together,” he says. “We're the ones who can do it.”
Michael A. de Yoanna and Terje Langeland are staff writers for the Colorado Daily in Boulder, Colorado.