Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day

Los Angeles Native American Heritage Month 2013

Supported by a broad coalition of Angelenos, the vote to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day comes to the Los Angeles City Council  on August 30th.  Since 1992,  dozens of cities and states have been removing Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day, including Alaska and Vermont last year.

The historical record is unambiguous in documenting the horrors Christopher Columbus and his men exacted on the native peoples he encountered in present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The 1492 voyage of Columbus was the beginning of the end of the “Taino,” a tribe once numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Of the Taino Natives he encountered, Columbus sent over 100 back to Europe where they would spend the rest of their lives as slaves. On their own homeland, the Taino were enslaved, slaughtered, or died of disease with which they had no immunity. Within 100 years there was no visible sign they ever existed. As their numbers dwindled, there was no one left to mine for gold or tend to the Colónialists plantations, so slaves were imported from Africa. This is just one of the consequences of the “discovery” of the Americas.

Columbus returned to the Americas  three more times,  repeating a systemic, violent process of dominance, slavery, and subjugation of indigenous people. This set in motion a centuries-long genocide unmatched in breadth and scale, anywhere in recorded history.  Although Christopher Columbus never stepped foot on the shores of North America, native people here in Los Angeles shared the same fate as those in the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

The Spanish first explored the West Coast in 1542, and in 1769 the first California Mission was established in San Diego. Within 50 years, a system of 21 Missions stretched up the coast to San Francisco. The purpose of the Missions was to subjugate local Native Americans to Spanish rule, forcibly convert them to Christianity, claim their land, set up farming, and enslave them to farm the land. Indigenous Californians had no rights and were considered subhuman. Barbaric activities such as hunting “Indians” for sport lasted hundreds of years through Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. rule.

In Los Angeles, the decimation of Tongva culture was so relentless they have yet to meet the criteria to be a federally recognized tribe. Los Angeles City Hall is built on a former Tongva village called Yang-Na. The Village was purchased out from under them in 1828 by a German immigrant and they were evicted from the community they had called home for thousands of years.

In 1937, the Columbus Day Federal Holiday was designated to celebrate his role in what the revisionists of the era called the Discovery of America. For decades the Knights of Columbus had lobbied national leaders on their behalf. During most of this time period, Native Americans were completely powerless, were denied basic human rights, and didn’t even have the right to vote. American “Indians” were not granted U.S. citizenship until 1924 and their right to vote had to be ratified by each State.  In this environment, a false mythology portraying Christopher Columbus as a benevolent historical figure was allowed to take root. History had been rewritten and the conquest of the American Indian was seemingly complete.

But in this country, there is a constant arc toward truth and justice. Removing Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day is the appropriate action for this city to take. We must send a signal to Washington D.C. that there is no better day to honor our original inhabitants while highlighting the absurdity of celebrating a historical figure responsible for such profound suffering, still felt by generations of Indigenous People everywhere. This is more than symbolic. It is spiritually and morally necessary. This one gesture of restorative justice will matter to a lot of people, especially Native Americans in Los Angeles, who suffer among the highest percentages of depression, incarceration, infant mortality, diabetes, and a lower life expectancy of any demographic. It’s time for Los Angeles to right a historical wrong of epic proportions and begin the necessary healing.

Every year in Los Angeles, we  rightfully commemorate the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and speak out boldly against the myriad injustices that plague the world. But there is no such recognition of the injustices faced by the original inhabitants of the United States, and specifically Los Angeles, the Indigenous People who were here thousands of years before any one of us. As statues aggrandizing the Confederacy topple across the South, so too should this symbol of oppression and genocide. This is our golden opportunity to make the 2nd Monday of October worth celebrating.

Mitch O’Farrell has served as Councilmember of the 13th District since July of 2013. Mitch is passionate about safe neighborhoods and improving the quality of life in Atwater Village, East Hollywood, Echo Park, Elysian Valley, Glassell Park, Historic Filipinotown, Hollywood, Little Armenia, Mid-Wilshire/Koreatown, Thai Town and Silver Lake. Mitch is a member of the Wyandotte Nation.