Indigenous people are finally building momentum against America's most scandalous “hero.”
Update: After finally approving the motion last week, the Seattle City Council will gather with tribal leaders on October 13 to sign the resolution naming the second Monday of the month as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Columbus Day may soon be a thing of the past in Seattle, Washington. The city council opened discussion on Tuesday about a proposal to replace the holiday with a new occasion celebrating native cultures, called Indigenous People’s Day. In the end, the council postponed the vote, reportedly to give Mayor Ed Murray time to schedule a ceremonial signing of the law on October 13. The initiative would place Seattle at the forefront of a new wave rallying against the exaltation of Christopher Columbus.
Minneapolis, Minnesota voted in April to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same date as Columbus Day, the first policy change of its sort in years. While Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first celebrated in 1992, to explicitly protest the quincentennial anniversary of Columbus’s discovery, it has failed to build steam across most of the U.S. California and South Dakota celebrate Native American Day, Tennessee celebrates American Indian Day, and a few other scattered cities have officially adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but over 40 states still observe Columbus Day as an official state holiday.
Seattle’s Human Rights Commission says that changing the holiday “reaffirms the city’s commitment to promote the well-being and growth of Seattle’s American Indian and indigenous community,” a population whose poverty rate hovered around 30 percent in 2009, compared to nine percent among white Seattleites. Nationwide, the 2012 poverty rate was 26 percent among the 5.2 million people who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.
Citizens gathered outside Seattle’s City Hall to support Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Photo by @wakiyan7 / Twitter
But more than a gesture meant simply to uplift indigenous people, replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a loud condemnation of Columbus himself, who has been called a “pitiless slave master” and a “harbinger of genocide.” After discovering the island that is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Columbus, who never actually reached the continental United States, appointed himself “viceroy and governor.” During his short reign, he enslaved and systematically exterminated millions of Taino natives. By the time he left office in 1500, a population estimated to be, when Columbus arrived, as high as eight million people was reduced to a few hundred thousand. Over the next half-century, the Taino people went completely extinct.
Yet the desire to highlight the destructiveness of this colonization butts up against Columbus Day’s founding aim, which was less about celebrating Columbus and more about celebrating Italian-American heritage. Colorado became the first state to officially observe the holiday in 1906, largely based on the lobbying efforts of Angelo Noce, an Italian immigrant who started Colorado’s first Italian-language newspaper. Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt made Columbus Day a federal holiday in 1934 after heavy lobbying from Generoso Pope, an Italian-language newspaper publisher based in New York (who would later purchase the National Enquirer), and the Catholic service organization Knights of Columbus, who sought greater cultural acceptance for Roman Catholicism and saw Columbus as a suitable American Catholic hero (surely unaware that Columbus may actually have been Jewish).
Alas, Seattle’s political leaders don’t seem to share the love. Their stance against Columbus Day is pointed, firm, and uninterested in a game of bocce. “These are historic facts, undisputed by historians,” councilmember Kshama Sawant told MyNorthwest.com. “It is unconscionable that we celebrate Columbus as a hero.”