On Oct. 9, Los Angeles joined the growing list of cities that officially disavow Columbus Day, in favor of a city holiday it has designated Indigenous Peoples Day.
The decision, which involved Italian Americans opposed to the change against a coalition of Native American and Indigenous groups, came after nearly two years of lobbying and debate. In the end, a Los Angeles City Council vote of 14-1 approving the change passed on Aug. 30.
Los Angeles, with nearly 4 million residents, is the largest city to make such a change thus far, joining Seattle, Phoenix, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul, among other cities and states to disavow Columbus Day. On Oct. 5, Austin, Texas became the latest city to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Grassroots advocates who sought the designation see it as not only a way to change how the story of European settlement of the Americas is told, but as a winning issue that can serve as a potent capacity building exercise for a growing Native American identity and political movement.
Speaking with Equal Voice News, some of the organizers behind the Los Angeles effort identified the following key elements that lead to their success in convincing the city to make the switch from Columbus Day:
- Identifying an elected official as an ally. In this case, it was Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who is a member of the Wyandotte Nation tribe, and the first Native American to serve on the City Council.
- Cite specific examples of historical atrocities. Advocates highlighted how Columbus wrote glowingly in his journal about rounding up Caribbean natives as slaves, and was even arrested for cruelty to his own colonists as governor.
- Share personal stories of negative effects. In Los Angeles, parents spoke about how celebrating Columbus Day affected their children’s self esteem as Native Americans.
“Christopher Columbus, the holiday is a time where people as Native Americans feel the full force of colonization, and it’s a day where we really feel we’re an invisible people. The genocide of our people is not talked about and understood,” explained Chrissie Castro, a community leader in Los Angeles who works with the Native Voice Network, a national coalition that supported the change in Los Angeles.
The celebration of the anniversary Christopher Columbus’ first arrival in the Caribbean on Oct. 12, 1492 stretches back to local parades and proclamations in the late 18th century. In 1934, Congress designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday, the result of decades of advocacy by Italian American groups such as the Knights of Columbus.
Berkeley, California was the first city to redesignate Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day, in 1992, as the explorer began to fall into disfavor.
The effort in Los Angeles began about two years ago, and community advocates behind it say that changing Columbus Day was as important to them as marking recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day.
“We started to cultivate a relationship with an elected official who was a Native American,” said Castro, referring to City Coucilman O’Farrell. “He sounded like yes he was supportive. But the campaign was really supported by a large coalition of organizations.”
A series of community meetings and hearings followed, which often turned heated.
“Those were challenges. There was an underestimation of the level of interest to there being a change,” said Angela Mooney D’Arcy, executive director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples. “I, at first, didn’t think there was going to be much opposition to it – I was surprised.”
In addition to the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, the American Indian Community Council and California Native Vote Project supported the change, Castro said.
Opposition came primarily from Italian American groups and individuals, who celebrate the Genoa-born Columbus as a countryman and standard-bearer of Italian heritage.
D’Arcy and Castro said the most effective speakers in favor of abolishing Columbus Day were Native American parents who talked about the negative effect they claimed the holiday had on their children – “the real psychological damage that celebrating Columbus Day can do,” according to D’Arcy.
One mother talked about her son, who according to Castro hid under a desk and cut off his braided hair following a classroom lesson about Columbus, coming home saying that he didn’t want to be Native American anymore.
“He felt so much shame because of whatever was presented in that classroom,” said Castro, saying the curriculum gave notoriety to “a figure who murdered, raped and enslaved Native and Indigenous people.”
Stories like these won over some of the opponents to the change, but by no means all. At the final City Council meeting, Los Angeles residents, including Michael DeCero, the son of Italian immigrants, shared their own childhood stories.
“When I went to grammar school the first book I opened was about Christopher Columbus. I didn’t know anything about him, just that he was an Italian and it made me proud to be an Italian. To me, this is a slap in the face for all Italian Americans, who’ve fought for this country, who came here for a good life,” he told the City Council, as it prepared to vote for the change.
Ultimately though, community advocates in favor of changing Columbus Day were able to build a broad coalition to bring the change to Los Angeles, which has one of the largest and most varied Indigenous populations in the United States.
“Overall coalition building was key, there were many groups, Native and non-Native, who got involved,” D’Arcy said. “It was important that people saw it was more than just Native people who were behind this change.”
The changing of Columbus Day in Los Angeles was not the end goal, but merely a step, both D’Arcy and Castro said – a way to build up a political coalition that could go on to work on things such as land rights and school lessons, an issue they both especially highlighted.
“It matters, the stories that we tell and don’t tell about our histories,” said D’Arcy. “From my perspective, it’s not a matter of reconciliation, it’s about who’s telling the history and what history is being told.”
Keith Griffith is a freelance journalist in New York City. All original and contracted Equal Voice News content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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