Groups Campaign to End Veneration of Columbus Day
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Oct. 10, 2005
Groups Campaign to End Veneration of Columbus and Transform Holiday
Interview with Glenn Morris, of the Colorado American Indian Movement, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
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The second Monday of October marks Columbus Day celebrations across the nation, which only became a national holiday in 1971. But as the full history becomes better known about the man who is credited with "discovering" America, protesters have called for the abolition or transformation of the holiday away from one that honors a man guilty of genocide against Native Americans to one that has a more inclusive narrative. Some cities and states have already renamed the holiday Indigenous People's Day or American Indian Day.
Denver, Colo. is at the forefront of this struggle. There, the Alliance to Transform Columbus Day, led by the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, has been challenging the Columbus holiday since 1989. On Oct. 7th, the Alliance will hold their All Nations Four Directions solidarity rally, and the next day the group will protest Denver's annual Columbus Day parade.
Solidarity actions are now held in many other cities, both in the U.S. and in Latin America and Europe. Last year, a statue of Columbus in Caracas, Venezuela, was toppled by protesters. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Glenn Morris of Colorado AIM about the history of the Columbus holiday and efforts now underway to transform it.
GLENN MORRIS: In Chicago in 1893, a very famous speech was given by Frederick Jackson Turner, an historian, about the close of the frontier. What that meant was that, the U.S. had finally, through the operation of Manifest Destiny, spread itself from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. But there were other projects in the works to expand the U.S. beyond those borders, into the Pacific, into the Caribbean. The Spanish-American War happened six years later ? the United States seizes Cuba, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, the Philippines. This imperial expansion of the United States needed a poster boy, and at the world’s fair in 1893, Columbus became that poster boy. They said, "Who can we use as an icon of the notion that the United States is really a world power and the civilization of the United States needs to be expanded?" Well, all of the native people in the United States had already been “pacified,” and so Columbus becomes this icon.
So, we realized that in Denver, Columbus Day is really a celebration not of Columbus, the man, but of the idea of colonialism and of imperialism. We know there’s a continuous thread that runs from 1492 to the present, so actually the theme for this year’s protest is “Defeat Colum-Bush,” because we know that the policies of Columbus in terms of using God and the quest for natural resources in that time, gold, and glory and territorial acquisition, is very similar to the policies, for example, of the Bush administration in Iraq. So, we do try to make the connection. But we also try to educate people about why Columbus Day is destructive not just to native children, but to all children, because part of the critique in Denver is, how does a society remember its history and in what way is that history imparted to children?
BETWEEN THE LINES: Why has this movement developed in Colorado?
GLENN MORRIS: The Colorado American Indian Movement felt a particular responsibility to deal with this because Columbus Day began in Colorado. And so, in anticipation of the 500th anniversary, we began a four-year educational campaign in Denver. And so, by 1992, we had organized about 4,000 people to come together in downtown Denver and say, we are going to confront the Columbus Day parade if they have one, because this continued celebration without any kind of opposition is not going to go on. And we had such a strong outpouring of support that they actually cancelled the parade, the parade organizers.
And it didn’t return to Denver until 2000. And so, in 2000 there was civil resistance against the parade and 150 people were arrested. And, eventually, the city dropped the charges, and there have been subsequent protests each year since then. Last year, 250 people were arrested in an act of civil resistance in blocking the parade. Seven of us went on trial initially in January, and were acquitted by a jury, and then the city dropped the charges against everyone else, after our trial.
BETWEEN THE LINES: In most American cities that honor Columbus, the organizing group is most often Italian, because even though Columbus sailed for Spain, he was Italian. Is that true in Denver, as well?
GLENN MORRIS: There’s been this ongoing discussion in Denver about whether the parade is some kind of expression of Italian pride or whether it’s a celebration of Columbus and colonialism. The notion that Columbus Day was created somehow to honor Italians is a complete fabrication.
BETWEEN THE LINES: As I learned more about Columbus, I was struck by his combination of admiration for the native people he encountered ? he wrote about how handsome they were, how generous and noble ? and then, his willingness to treat them as less than human, and in fact to exterminate them. He’s also been implicated in helping to start the African slave trade.
GLENN MORRIS: We believe that a person who is personally responsible for that level of carnage against native people and beginning the African slave trade is deserving of no state or national holiday. And certainly, in 2005 there are more appropriate ideals or principles or even individuals to honor than Christopher Columbus. But even more important to us than that ? than Columbus the man, and whether or not he deserves a holiday ? is a discussion about the legacy of Columbus, because Columbus began a process in 1492 that has been continued by the United States Supreme Court, the United States Congress, settler states throughout the Americas that affect native peoples to this very day. This is not really a critique of Columbus the man; it’s a critique about how America remembers its history, and how that fallacious history then gets translated into law and policy that adversely affects native people to the present time.
For more information, call the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement office at (303) 832-2544 or visit their website at http://www.transformcolumbusday.org
* "A People's History of the United States," book by Howard Zinn
Melinda Tuhus is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Oct. 14, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.
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