By KATHLEEN FOODY and WILSON RING
Monday's federal holiday dedicated to Christopher Columbus is highlighting the ongoing divide between those who view the explorer as a representative of Italian American history and others horrified by an annual tribute that ignores native people whose lives and culture were forever changed by colonialism.
Spurred by national calls for racial equity, communities across the U.S. took a deeper look at Columbus' legacy in recent years — pairing or replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day.
On Friday, President Joe Biden issued the first presidential proclamation of “Indigenous Peoples' Day,'' the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Columbus.
But activists, including members of Native American tribes, said ending the formal holiday in Columbus' name has been stymied by politicians and organizations focusing on Italian American heritage.
“The opposition has tried to paint Columbus as a benevolent man, similar to how white supremacists have painted Robert E. Lee,'' Les Begay, Dine Nation member and co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples' Day Coalition of Illinois, said, referring to the Civil War general who led the Confederate Army.
Columbus' arrival began centuries of exploration and colonization by European nations, bringing violence, disease and other suffering to native people already living in the Western Hemisphere.
“Not honoring Indigenous peoples on this day just continues to erase our history, our contributions and the fact that we were the first inhabitants of this country,'' Begay said.
Across the country tension, over the two holidays has been playing out since the early 1990s. Debates over monuments and statues of the Italian explorer tread similar ground, as in Philadelphia where the city placed a box over a Columbus statue last year in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. Protesters opposing racial injustice and police brutality against people of color rallied for months in summer 2020.
Philadelphia lawyer George Bochetto, who has been fighting Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney's administration to uncover the statue, said Saturday many felt efforts to remove it were an attack on Italian-American heritage.
Kenney previously signed an executive order changing the city's annual Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. Monday will be the first city holiday under the new name.
“We have a mayor that's doing everything he can to attack the Italian American community, including canceling its parade, removing statues, changing the Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day by fiat,” Bochetto said.
Kenney spokesperson Kevin Lessard said the statue should remain boxed up “in the best interest and public safety of all Philadelphians.''
In 2016, Lincoln, Nebraska, joined other cities adding Indigenous Peoples' Day to the calendar on the same date as Columbus Day. Events on Monday will focus on the newer addition, including unveiling a statue honoring the first Native American physician, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte.
Some feel a split day causes further harm. Activists plan a small protest outside the Robert V. Denney Federal Building, calling for an outright end to the holiday in Columbus' name at all levels of government.
“It's patently absurd to honor Indigenous people and the man who tortured and murdered their ancestors,'' said Jackson Meredith, an organizer. “As far as we're concerned, we're going to keep protesting it until Columbus Day is abolished.''
In New York City, the annual Columbus Day Parade returns after a one-year, in-person absence attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. The parade is touted by some as the world's largest Columbus Day celebration.
In May, Italian American activists complained after the Board of Education erased Christopher Columbus Day from the New York City school calendar, replacing it with “Indigenous People's Day.'' Following the outcry, the schools changed the designation to: “Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People's Day.''
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he supported the compromise.
“We have to honor that day as a day to recognize the contributions of all Italian Americans, so of course the day should not have been changed arbitrarily,'' de Blasio said.
Chicago's annual Columbus Day parade also returns Monday after the pandemic forced 2020's cancellation of the event that draws 20,000 people. It's a vivid reminder of the ongoing fight over three statues of Columbus, still warehoused by the city after protesters targeted them in summer 2020.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot in July 2020 ordered the statues removed and said demonstrations were endangering protesters and police.
She later created a committee to review monuments in the city, including the fate of Columbus monuments. No plans have been announced publicly, but the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans that plans the Columbus Day parade this summer sued the city's park district, demanding that one be restored.
Ron Onesti, the organization's president, said the parade usually draws protesters and expects that on Monday too. He sees the holiday, parade and statues as a celebration of Italian Americans' contributions to the U.S., not just Columbus.
“The outcome I'm looking for is (for) our traditions to be respected and conversations to continue,'' Onesti said Saturday. “Every plaque that goes along with a statue says it recognizes the Italian community's contributions. So people need to understand that's why it's there, and then let's sit down and figure out where to go from here.”
Illinois in 2017 designated the last Monday in September as Indigenous Peoples Day but kept Columbus Day on the second Monday of October. A proposal to replace Columbus Day filed this year hasn't received any action.
Chicago Public Schools in 2020 voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, provoking outrage from several alderman and Italian American groups. The city's holiday calendar still lists Columbus Day.
Begay, the Indigenous Peoples Day advocate, said the organization decided to focus on changing Columbus Day first in Cook County, hoping it would be an easier path than convincing state or Chicago officials. But so far, members of the county's board haven't lined up behind the proposal.
“Why are 500 plus years still forgotten?'' Begay said. “Why don't we have this single day to recognize these horrible atrocities committed against native people?''
RENO, Nev. (AP) — It's hard to miss the vibrant mural that now decorates a wall inside the Joe Crowley Student Union at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The image, unlike any other on campus, depicts the history of Native American women and their struggle to protect their culture, land and water.
For Reno artist Sana Sana, the work presents an opportunity to educate the public on the history of Nevada's indigenous peoples and their struggles. It's a way to give the Native American communities a voice, he said.
“Whenever I'm creating art pieces, I need to be honest and give attention to things that people aren't giving attention to,'' Sana Sana told the Reno Gazette Journal. “There are enough artists who are just painting pretty flowers or making songs about money, drugs or misogyny.
“There are enough people speaking about those things, so it's my responsibility to speak about other things that are happening,'' he said. “I used my painting to do that.''
The mural was commissioned to celebrate the renaming of The Center. Every Student, Every Story to the Multicultural Center and has since captured the attention of students and faculty.
It depicts the fight over the approval of Thacker Pass, a proposed mine at the largest known U.S. deposit of lithium near the Nevada-Oregon border.
At least one Nevada tribe joined the legal battle — alongside environmental conservationists trying to protect the habitat in the area — to ban digging at the site, claiming the mine would disturb sacred burial grounds.
The painting shows a woman's silhouette as a mountainscape with a gaping wound from an open pit mine.
“This is the friendliest mining state inside the country,'' Sana Sana said. “The mining industry is the largest polluter in the country per volume. I thought it was important for people to see that.
“It's one thing to see a mine, but it's another thing to see it as a person and the pain the land goes through in this nonconsensual taking of what people value for money and how it correlates to the nonconsensual taking of women's bodies and the rape culture we live inside society,'' he said.
The mural also depicts Mother Earth as a pregnant Native American woman representing life, the land and creation. Sana Sana said he believes it's important to humanize and personify the landscape to make the issue more relatable.
“When I think of the land, I think of a mother,'' he said. “Everything comes from the land, that's what we're born out of. When I think of my mother, she's brown, she has indigenous features because of our heritage.''
Sana Sana, whose father immigrated to the U.S., said he has an indigenous heritage with ties to the Purepecha people from Michoacan, Mexico.
At the bottom of his mural, Sana Sana depicted various indigenous girls. At one end of the mural, they appear to be smiling, but at the other end, a nun wearing an American flag on her sleeve is shown cutting the girls' hair — a church engulfed in flames burning behind her.
The piece represents the history of Native American boarding schools and the attempts by the federal government to quash indigenous cultures.
Most recently, boarding schools throughout the country have come under federal review to investigate student deaths and the effects boarding schools have had on Native American tribes. The unprecedent initiative follows the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children at what was once Canada's largest Indigenous residential school.
“I shed a lot of tears while I was creating that piece because that piece also represents me as well,'' Sana Sana said. “That's why I don't speak Purepecha. That's why I speak Spanish. That's why I don't have my ceremonies and I was raised in a church going through that same system, not being able to have our songs to honor our water and our land.''
Beverly Harry, a member of Navajo Tribe within the Four Corners Region and the Native community organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said the mural is a reminder for people that they are on Native American land.
“The most populated areas are taken up by non-Native communities,'' Harry said. “When we look at the area of Washoe Valley and Reno, those are areas where the Washoe people and the Northern Paiutes used to roam.''
Harry has worked with Sana Sana to promote other social causes, including raising awareness of the possible effect of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. She described Sana Sana's activism through artwork as “artivism.''
“It helps build a bridge between the beauty of art and the beauty of our voices that are protecting these lands,'' she said. “We have to maintain it for seven generations forward.''
She said the mural also depicts strong women who fought for their people. It references Haunani-Kay Trask, a renowned scholar who fought for Hawaiian sovereignty and recently died at the age of 71.
Although there are Native American professors and student organizations at UNR, there isn't enough representation of the local indigenous tribes, Harry said.
“You go through the university and the buildings and the different levels of each building, there aren't any areas that are dedicated to indigenous people,'' she said. “There aren't even any colleges that are devoted to Native American studies or indigenous studies or anything like that.
“We're hopeful that it will lend some pride to people visiting the center and help them understand that brown people are important, and they should be prideful for the work within all of these areas of concern and issues (represented) within this mural.''
Jody Lykes, who teaches hip-hop, family studies and classes on gender race and identity at UNR, said he's seen students stop and gawk at the mural.
“In person, it evokes thought, emotion and everything you hope art does,'' Lykes said. “We have people who walk by the center, because it's new and they haven't seen it yet, and they will stop and focus.''
For Lykes, the most impactful piece of the mural was seeing the American Flag represent boarding schools.
“It's super impactful, I can't even explain it,'' he said. “We are trying to make sure people are included who have been excluded, and especially for Native women. It's just powerful the way he expresses it.''