Ground Zero for Columbus Day

Michael A. de Yoanna & Terje Langeland

This October, a
conflict rooted in more than 500 years of American history will once again
rear its head in Denver, Colorado. As Italian-Americans prepare to march in
honor of Christopher Columbus, American Indians and their supporters,
including anti-globalization activists, plan to confront the parade.

Italian-Americans and their supporters, this year’s parade represents a
victory for the First Amendment, American patriotism, and Italian pride. Local
Sons of Italy organizer George Vendegnia— who along with several others camped
outside a city office for more than a month to obtain a parade permit—hopes as
many as 15,000 supporters will converge in Denver to ensure the parade goes
forward. He has lined up several powerful allies, including Colorado state
Sen. Alice Nichol, an Italian-American, who will be the parade’s grand
marshal. Also expected to participate, Vendegnia says, is Rep. Tom Tancredo

Vendegnia has
traveled to Chicago, New York, and Florida to meet with prominent
Italian-American officials in an effort to raise money and lure participants.
Many supporters are showing a keen interest in Denver because they fear
American Indian protests will spread, he said.

For opponents,
the parade represents a trashing of cross-cultural educational efforts and an
assertion of Western chauvinism, leaving dim prospects for racial unity. To
counter this message and transform Columbus Day into an event that recognizes
America in its full diversity, indigenous and Chicana women are planning a
weekend of multicultural celebrations, including a concert featuring several
nationally recognized acts, and a massive march and rally for unity on
Saturday, October 6.

Organizers hope
the celebratory and educational nature of the events will reduce the emphasis
on conflict and racial fragmentation. “Our whole effort is for the children,
for them to learn the truth,” says Troylynn Yellow Wood, one of the

Still, come the
following Monday, activists pledge to do what it takes to stop the Columbus
Day parade. “AIM has consistently said, and our position remains, that
anti-Indian hate speech should be confronted consistently, vigorously, and
without apology,” says Colorado AIM leader Glenn Morris. Morris promises that
as many as 15,000 protesters could show up.

Columbus hoopla dates back to 1892, when a statue of Columbus was erected in
New York City and the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago honored the
colonial governor. It was the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the
Americas, and the celebrations came as the United States closed its
frontier—an event that was soon followed by U.S. colonial expansion overseas.

“The country
needed a symbol for its emergence on the world stage,” says Professor Bill
Keegan of the University of Florida, who has studied Columbus for the past 20
years. “He seemed the perfect symbol—a man who triumphed over unspeakable odds
to achieve his goals. What they forgot was that his gain was someone else’s

Indians hadn’t forgotten. The memories of Wounded Knee and Colorado’s Sand
Creek Massacre—events that marked the beginning of the end of freedom for the
Plains Indians—were still fresh.

According to
Vendegnia, Columbus Day began as an assertion of American nationalism but
became an expression of Italian-American pride in an era of discrimination
against Italians. “You’re an American first and an Italian second,” Vendegnia

In 1905, the
Italian-American community in Pueblo, Colorado held the state’s first Columbus
Day parade, and in 1907, Colorado was the first state in the union to make the
holiday official. In 1934, President Roosevelt issued a proclamation asking
the 48 states to observe Columbus Day in October, but it wasn’t until 1971
that President Nixon made it a federal holiday.

Meanwhile, the
civil rights movement and the Vietnam War had begun to transform American
society and AIM was beginning to challenge the way history was taught.

In 1990,
tremors of pro- and anti-Columbus sentiment erupted in Denver when
Italian-American groups said they wanted to permanently resurrect what were
previously sporadic Columbus parades. Alarmed by the prospect, AIM activists,
led by Russell Means, organized an educational campaign about Columbus.

Despite their
efforts, a Columbus Day parade was held in 1990. Italians agreed to meet with
Native Americans in the year to come, but the meeting never materialized. So
in 1991, as another parade was set to take place, about 2,000 protesters
showed up—300 of them blocking the parade route as others poured buckets of
blood in the street. Four Indian activists were arrested: Means, Morris,
Yellow Wood, and Ward Churchill.

In 1992,
seeking to head off yet another confrontation as the big quincentenary bash
was approaching, AIM leaders, Italian parade organizers, the city of Denver,
and religious leaders attended several mediation sessions organized by the
Community Relations Service division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
However, Italians refused to give in to AIM’s central demand that all
references to Columbus be removed from the parade.

The failure of
the talks brought an estimated 4,000 protesters out to confront the parade,
which had drawn only about 100 participants. In the tense atmosphere, police
said they couldn’t guarantee the Italians’ safety, and organizers canceled.

“That was it,”
Morris says. He thought Indians and their supporters had won what they had
wanted—ending Columbus Day parades in Denver for good.

resentment was seething in the Italian-American community, Vendegnia says. “At
that time, the people who were organizing the parade decided it was the safest
route to forget it,” he says. “It was the worst thing they could have done.”

founded the Colorado chapter of the Sons of Italy New Generation in 1995. Over
the next few years, he and others held “Columbus Day bazaars” at a Disabled
American Veterans building, while harboring hopes that the parade could be

Finally, last
year C.M. Mangiaracina, Vendegnia’s associate, obtained a parade permit from
the city and promised a celebration come October.

The Justice
Department once again summoned the parties and mediated a deal in which
American Indians and their supporters agreed not to protest, in exchange for
an agreement by Italian-Americans to drop references to Columbus and to march
for “Italian pride.” The city of Denver also signed the document.

Morris called
the agreement just and Means promised to march with Italians to honor Italian
pride. A Justice Department official called the agreement “historic,” and the
city promised peace would prevail. But within 24 hours, the deal was dead.

Vendegnia says
the Italians only signed the deal to prove that the city of Denver and the
federal government were prepared to trample on their First Amendment rights.
He took the document to the American Civil Liberties Union, which held a press
conference the following day supporting the Italians’ right to hold a Columbus
Day parade.

As part of the
agreement, the city had said it would pull the Italians’ parade permit should
they decide to honor Columbus. As it turned out,  “We couldn’t,” says Andrew
Hudson, a spokesperson for Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.

The parade went
ahead, and more than 140 protesters were arrested for blocking the parade
route, though their charges were later dropped.

The parties see
little hope for a peaceful solution this year, even though one of the main
Columbus organizers, Mangiaracina, appeared to have a change of heart in early
August. Mangiaracina, who is the official holder of the parade permit, went to
the Native American leaders and made a plea for peace, offering to march for
Italian pride. But Vendegnia has denuonced his actions and has pledged the
Columbus parade will   go ahead as planned. Either way, Morris has expressed
reluctance to negotiate with Mangiaracina again. “I don’t have any interest in
dealing with dishonorable people,” Morris said.

Hudson says the
city won’t try to mediate as long as no one wants to participate. “I think
there’s general consensus that both sides are pretty set in their ways,”
Hudson says. “The city will do whatever we can to make sure that the parade
can move forward, and that the protesters can protest.… I think that the
city’s responsibilities are to protect the constitutional rights of both

Though the
breakdown in communication between the two sides reflects a deep disagreement
over what Columbus Day symbolizes, there is less dispute over claims that
Columbus killed and enslaved indigenous people.

“It’s not
really a matter that’s in dispute,” says historian Howard Zinn. “The argument
was never about whether Columbus did these things,” but rather about whether
they were justifiable and whether indigenous people should be considered “full
human beings.”

To present-day
Columbus Day supporters, the atrocities Columbus may have committed are second
to the significance of his 1492 trans-Atlantic voyage and the symbolism of the

“He is credited
with the discovery of the Americas,” says Nichol. “What else he may have done,
what bearing does it have today?” Though Columbus may have done things she
would never support, she says, “it was the times.”

Zinn points out
that Columbus atrocities were challenged by his contemporaries—people of
conscience such as Jesuit priest Bartolomé de las Casas, who wrote a history
objecting to Columbus’s treatment of Indians, successfully calling on Spain to
reform its ways.

But to Columbus
Day organizers, the bottom-line is freedom of speech, not history. “If I
wanted to walk down the street with the German people and heil Hitler, I
should be able to do that,” Vendegnia says. “Not that I would.”

opponents characterize Columbus celebrations as a form of hate speech not
necessarily protected by the First Amendment. According to Morris, the
Brown v. Board of Education
Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial
segregation is about testing the limits of acceptable speech. Business owners
no longer put up signs reading “no coloreds” and racial slurs are not
permitted in the workplace. Both are examples of speech, Morris says.

said it had a legal right to do business under an apartheid regime in
Mississippi,” he says, referring to the practice of barring blacks from eating
at lunch-counters alongside whites. It took active civil resistance to change
the practice, he notes.

Just as Martin
Luther King Jr. was viewed by some as an unpatriotic agitator, Morris says AIM
must fight an unpopular battle to change people’s minds. He says he’s failed
in his attempts to appeal to the Italians’ sense of  “common decency” by
trying to explain how the parade offends Native Americans.

organizers say they don’t buy the argument that Indians are offended.
Vendegnia says they are seeking to attract funding for political causes.
“These people don’t care about Christopher Columbus; don’t let them kid you,”
Vendegnia says. “It’s a political thing for them. They want political power,
they want political clout, and they want to get grants. The only way to get
grants is to cry real loud.”

Nichol says the
people protesting Columbus Day represent only a small group of “Indians,
Hispanics and Jewish” activists—not the majority of Hispanics and Native
Americans. “I think there’s more to it than just being offended,” she says.
“I’m looking for the reason behind this, the real reason.”

Zinn says he
doesn’t believe most Columbus Day celebrants are consciously advocating
racism. Many of them, he argues, are simply “ignorant.” Some, however, may
have more Machiavellian motives and may see celebration “as a way to cement
patriotism,” he suggests.

“A celebration
of Columbus celebrates imperialism,” Zinn says. “It celebrates the expansion
across the West and the extinction of Indians. Many Americans,” Zinn says,
“view the country’s expansion and domination as a manifestation of greatness.”

Vendegnia expresses such a view. “If it wasn’t for us, the Native Americans
and the Hispanics wouldn’t be as educated as they are, they wouldn’t be living
in the most powerful country in the world and the most educated country in the
world,” Vendegnia says. “Western culture is what developed the country over

Morris says
there are also political reasons why mainstream society sticks with the
official version of history and continues to endorse Columbus through official
holidays. “I really believe that it has to do with this settler-society
psychology, or this culture-of- conquest psychology,” Morris says. “But it
also has to do with, ‘What are the stakes?’”

In the
African-American civil-rights struggle, the stakes are largely about inclusion
in mainstream society, Morris says. But for American Indians, the struggle is
about obtaining justice outside the dominant “settler society” while retaining
cultural and national identities. A re-thinking of how the settler society was
constructed is necessary, he says. “No one wants to deal with that question.
It’s the question of how the country was formed and what rationalizations were

The most
damning rationalizations came in the form of three Supreme Court verdicts
under Chief Justice John Marshall that dramatically changed American Indian
land rights. In the 1823 Johnson v Macintosh verdict, the court ruled
that by reason of conquest, native lands became the property of the U.S.
government and “Indians” were to be considered occupants. In 1831, the court
ruled that tribes were “sovereign nations” but not “foreign nations,” setting
up a “ward/guardian” relationship between Indians and the government.

The ruling
ideology, based on Johnson v Macintosh, is “diametrically opposed” to
Native Americans’ perception of how the world ought to be, Morris says. The
current struggle, he adds, is “about how the country will and should remember
history (and) the future place we have in the world.”

The division over
Columbus Day promises to be protracted. The two sides have vastly different
views of what it would take to achieve peace and unity.

“The conflict
will be resolved between the two communities just like it was with the white
supremacists and Martin Luther King— give two permits,” Vendegnia said. “They
have a right to have a protest and we have the right to have a parade.”

Vendegnia said he wants to see the protesters removed from the parade route.
Nichol says she’s looking forward to annual Columbus Day parades “for years to
come.” She says everyone should follow the example of the Italian-Americans,
who have integrated into mainstream society. “We are Americans, like everyone
else should be,” Nichol says. “We should all assimilate.”

Keegan’s vision
of unity, meanwhile, is one that embraces a multicultural heritage. “After
1492, we have all shared one history,” Keegan says. “No matter what our
background, we all have an African heritage, an Asian heritage, an American
heritage, a European heritage. It is time that we acknowledged this. I am
dismayed by the tendency to fragment, and by its most evil visage—ethnic
cleansing. We have had 500 years of shared heritage—how much longer will we
need to recognize it?”

To Zinn,
Columbus Day is an opportunity to learn. “The most compelling reason” to
protest the parade, he says, “is to educate the public and to make them aware
of how barren the history education in this country is—and that the history,
from Columbus on, is one of aggression against people.”

Morris says, need to recognize this history in order to change. “Are we going
to be destroyed by history or changed by it?” he asks. “We need to transcend
the racism, the sexism, the hatefulness, the classism. We need to transform
that into a respectful, more inclusive and environmentally sustainable

If anyone can
accomplish it, says Means, it is the indigenous movement. “We are going to
prove again and again that we can draw everyone together,” he says. “We’re the
ones who can do it.”

A. de Yoanna and Terje Langeland are staff writers for the
in Boulder, Colorado.