Along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, tens of thousands of New Yorkers and tourists celebrated the world’s largest display of Italian-American pageantry on Columbus Day, while New Mexico and a growing list of states and municipalities ditched the holiday altogether for the first time.
The Italian navigator namesake who sailed to the modern-day Americas in 1492, Christopher Columbus has long been considered by some scholars and Native Americans as an affront to those who had settled on the land thousands of years prior to his arrival.
While the earliest commemoration of Columbus Day dates back to 1866 in New York City, as a celebration to honor the heritage and contributions of the now-17 million Italian-Americans living in the United States, the movement behind “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” began more than a century later, in 1977, by a delegation of Native nations.
The resolution, presented in Geneva at the United Nations-sponsored International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, paved the way for cities like Berkeley, California to officially replace the holiday 15 years later.
Yet to organizers of the 75th annual Columbus Day Parade, the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus remains worth celebrating.
“Columbus discovered America. If it weren’t for Columbus, who knows where we’d be today,” said Aldo Verrelli, Parade Chairman with the Columbus Citizens Foundation.
“[With] any of those people in those days, we have to remember the good that they did,” Verrelli said. Let’s forget about all the other controversy.”
It’s a sentiment and a suggestion that has long divided Americans: honor tradition, or correct history and rectify the past.
“There were Native Americans that were here before, but [Columbus] basically discovered the New World, and that’s why we’re here today,” said Joe Sanfilippo, a participant at the New York Columbus Day Parade.
“The Europeans essentially tried to eradicate us,” U.S. Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-NM) told VOA. “They brought disease. They banished us to reservations later on when the U.S. government became an active force.”
Since Berkeley’s decision to rename the holiday in 1992, more than 130 cities have followed suit. Joining several states — including Minnesota, Alaska, Vermont, Oregon and South Dakota — New Mexico became the latest state to legally replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2019, celebrated for the first time on Monday.
One of the first two Native American women elected to U.S. Congress and member of the Laguna Pueblo, Haaland describes her mission as one to “correct history” and honor the resilience of America’s Indigenous Peoples on the national stage. On October 11, she co-sponsored a national resolution to designate the second Monday in October as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
“There’s 573 distinct tribes right now in our country. And we’re all diverse. And I just I think that it’s an excellent way for us to celebrate the diversity and recognize that when other indigenous people come to this country, that there’s a place for them also,” Haaland said of the renamed holiday.
America, she adds, was never “discoverable” in the first place, a “misnomer” that runs in direct contradiction to decades-old American history textbooks and the people who defend Christopher Columbus’s legacy.
“In their minds, accepting the truth, is somehow shifting the power — [in] that it contributes to the loss of power by minority over the majority,” said Regis Pecos, former governor of Cochiti Pueblo. “I think that these attitudes and behaviors are so deeply entrenched, that it is really based upon fear of losing a narrative, as false as that narrative is.”
Festival attendees in the state’s capitol, Santa Fe, say the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day marks progress.
“History is always written by the winners. And then now, we[ve] come to a generation [where] we start to think about what we used to think is right is wrong now,” said attendee Silvia Sian.
At the Columbus Day Parade in New York, others argue it shouldn’t be an either-or decision.
“Those who want to honor Columbus, then they keep that day,” said New York resident Heather Fitzroy. “But those who want to honor the ones who lived before us, like the indigenous people of America, if they want to honor them, then that’s OK too.”