US campaign against Columbus Day gaining steam

Native peoples movement gets fresh boost as Phoenix city decides to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day.

    US campaign against Columbus Day gaining steam
    Native Americans protested against the celebration of Columbus Day in Seattle in 2015 [Elaine Thompson/AP]

    Winslow, Arizona - A growing movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day, which aims to celebrate the culture of native peoples across the Americas, is gaining steam.

    Indigenous activists have campaigned for decades for the acceptance of the holiday, saying that celebrating the arrival of Columbus is tantamount to rejoicing in the decimation of Native American populations across the continent.

    "Phoenix just recognised the day, the largest city to do so," Jose Matus, the executive director of the Arizona-based Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras (AISF), Spanish for Indigenous Alliance Without Borders, told Al Jazeera in an interview.

    Phoenix's city council voted on Wednesday to celebrate Native Americans in lieu of Columbus Day, which has been celebrated as a Federal holiday on the second Monday of October since 1932.

    The city's metropolitan area has a population of more than 4,500,000, and is only the latest in a growing series of victories for Indigenous People's Day.

    The first city to recognise the day was Berkeley, California, in 1992. Since then, roughly 25 other cities including Denver, Colorado, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, have followed suit.

    Furthermore, native populations still see outsized discrimination and inequality, Matus said.

    Indigenous peoples

    AISF was founded in 1997, the year construction began on the separation wall, to educate indigenous peoples on both sides of the border about their rights to cross the US-Mexico border, among other issues.

    "It feels good," Matus continued, referring to Phoenix's decision. "It gives us more strength in promoting the day to other places."

    The struggle of native population is important to those involved in other movements, according to Maryam Pugh, the Co-Founder of Philadelphia Printworks, a grass-roots attire company founded in 2010 that places symbols and quotations from icons of the African-American community on its products.

    "Christopher Columbus was a murderer who executed mass genocide on an entire people. It is beyond horrifying that we honour him," Pugh told Al Jazeera in an email.

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    She thinks replacing his holiday with the celebration of indigenous culture would be a step towards recognising the injustices of the past to unify and move forward.

    "It's really important to me to work with all marginalised groups to identify our intersections of oppression," Pugh told Al Jazeera.

    PPW hosted a sale to commemorate Indigenous People's Day. All of the profits will be donated to protest efforts at Standing Rock.

    The area in South Dakota has become a hot spot for indigenous struggle as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe demonstrates to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a $3.8bn oil pipeline.

    DAPL runs across land that once belonged to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which is home to tribal burial sites, cultural artefacts, and other sacred areas.

    Recently, police presence has increased at the site, with demonstrators continuing to block construction efforts. Protests have turned violent.

    "The reality is that history is happening around us right now. Injustice is happening right now," Pugh responded when asked if Standing Rock had affected her.

    "It may be more convenient or easier to look the other way. But, if we do, we are just as much to blame."

    A day for immigrants?

    To the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) Columbus Day is not horrifying, it is a celebration of immigration.

    In 2015, OSIA National President Daniel Longo said that Columbus Day has "come to symbolise and celebrate … millions of immigrants, particularly those of Italian ancestry," who followed Columbus "with the hope of finding freedom and a chance to give their families a better future".

    This year, OSIA's Commission for Social Justice started a petition for "an official Capital luncheon and White House evening reception in recognition and endorsement of Columbus Day".

    So far, 1,398 supporters have signed.

    One signatory, Richard DiSilvio from Massapequa, New York, wrote that Indigenous People's Day “is an attack not only on the Italian-American community but also on the entire nation".

    Matus, executive director of AISF, does not agree.

    "Hopefully next year there will be more cities celebrating Indigenous People's Day. We're in organising mode, so we can get rid of Columbus Day."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News



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