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Americans trying to redefine Columbus Day

Some people pushing for Native American day in addition to Columbus Day

Monday marks Columbus Day in the United States, and while federal employees and much of the rest of the country are enjoying a three-day holiday, not everyone is celebrating.

A growing number of cities across the country are revisiting the meaning of Columbus Day, saying Christopher Columbus couldn’t have discovered America, since it was already inhabited when he arrived. They want Indigenous Peoples Day or Native Americans Day either to supplement Columbus Day or to replace it.

The Seattle City Council has already adopted Indigenous Peoples Day, after a unanimous vote, as has the school board of Portland, Oregon. Minneapolis made the same decision in April, and Berkeley, California, did the same much earlier, in 1992.

Christopher Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola, which is today split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in 1492. His journals describe the mass enslavement and extermination of the Taino population there.

During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment The Week Ahead, Thomas Drayton spoke to Kshama Sawant, a member of the Seattle City Council, joining the discussion from Seattle, and to Rebecca Adamson, founder and president of First Peoples Worldwide, from Washington, D.C.


Sawant read a line from Columbus’ writings that described the Native Americans in North America: “They do not bear arms. They do not know them. They would make fine servants. With 15 men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

She said the celebration of Columbus Day should be ended. “If we are to send a message of empowerment to all our young people,” she said, “we should end the celebration of somebody who represents and who was himself personally responsible for the genocide of an entire people of an entire continent.”

Many Italian-Americans, however, don’t see it that way. They say the day is just recognition of Columbus as an explorer and that abolishing it would be an insult to their culture and heritage. Some Italian-Americans living in Seattle took to the streets to protest holding the two holidays on the same day.

Sawant said that Italian-Americans should instead honor those Italians who gave up their lives in the fight for social justice. “There is a proud history of Italian-Americans on the forefront struggling against racism, struggling for social justice, and who have played a leading role in the early labor movement of the United States of America,” she pointed out. “Those are the people we should be celebrating, not a mass murderer.”

There are still quite a few indigenous communities across the Americas, many of whom live in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. The biggest challenge for many of them is maintaining control of their land’s natural resources.

In the Brazilian Amazon alone, there are 400 indigenous groups. It’s home to more isolated tribes than anywhere else in the world. Many of them choose to remain so after previous encounters with the outside world led to enslavement and exposure to disease.

In 2006 the United Nations adopted a declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, affirming that they are equal to all other peoples and that their cultures need to be promoted. The U.N. held the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples last month in New York.

In the United States there are roughly 300 Native American reservations. The tribes that live on them do not have full sovereignty over their lands but largely autonomous. Often a lack of jobs can mean an unemployment rate of 40 to 80 percent, making them some of the poorest people in the country.

“We don’t all have one way of thinking, but we do have values that hold us all together in a sacred relationship with the land, in respect for one another and a respect for our differences,” said Adamson. “So we don’t really see this as taking away from Columbus for our recognition. We feel we should have been recognized all along.”

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