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Inside the growing movement to ditch Columbus Day and celebrate Native Americans instead

Christopher Columbus isn’t simply a “hero.”

Seattle City Council Votes To Change Columbus Day To Indigenous Peoples' Day Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images

Every year, more cities adopt resolutions to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day as a counter-movement honoring Native Americans instead of Christopher Columbus, a 15th-century Italian explorer who arrived in the Americas by accident but helped usher in European settler colonialism.

These changes have been a long time coming. Indigenous activists proposed the idea to the United Nations in 1977 at the UN’s International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas. But it didn’t begin to happen in the US until Berkeley, California, adopted the change in 1992.

Today at least 26 cities are honoring indigenous people on the second Monday in October. Here are just a few that have made the change this year: Spokane, Washington; Denver, Colorado; and Phoenix, Arizona. Vermont’s Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin even issued an executive proclamation on Monday, redefining the holiday across the state.

To learn more about the movement over the past 24 years, Vox spoke with Gino Barichello, the coordinator for Berkeley’s Indigenous Peoples Day whose family is affiliated with the Maskoki tribe in Oklahoma.

We discussed how Indigenous Peoples Day is changing views on Native Americans, why Italian Americans are particularly hesitant to let go of Columbus, and the significance of the holiday today in light of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Victoria Massie

Can you talk a bit about the Berkeley Indigenous Peoples Day committee's mission and what you all have been doing since 1992 when Berkeley first changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day?

Gino Barichello

Since the early '90s, the committee has just really made it a focus to make sure that the general public is, first of all, aware that Native Americans are still living in modern times, and that we're not really relegated to history books, and just living, very much, in teepees.

Although there are some indigenous folks do still live in teepees and live off of the land, there are those of us that live in urban settings, and we live in houses and condos, and we contribute to society. But the more important focus is that we've survived all these years. Not only that, but [the committee wants] to just come together for a day to celebrate our identities, all of our contributions to American history, and to celebrate our artwork, our songs, our dances, our food, and just to be together and enjoy one another's company.

Victoria Massie

You mentioned how one of the issues about bringing awareness to Indigenous Peoples Day is letting people know indigenous people still exist today. What fuels that kind of myth, and how is that myth perpetuated with the regular celebration of Christopher Columbus?

Gino Barichello

I think both of them are intertwined. When people think of Columbus Day, they tend to think of history books, or something that happened long ago in history. When we think of Columbus, or Native American people as well, we think of movies, and not our day-to-day lives. And oftentimes Native people are depicted in times that were long ago — we're talking about turn of the [19th] century and before. People are not used to or accustomed to seeing Native Americans living in the urban settings, sitting in traffic along with everyone else. Or having struggles related to affordable housing or those kinds of things in the urban centers.

So it's important to educate the general public that we're still here. We're still a part of the American fabric, and that we're here, and we're celebrating our identity. We're carrying on our cultural practices with pow wows. Not only pow wows, but each specific tribe or nation has their own religious practices and ceremonial practices. And those are certainly carried on today as well. So that's an important message that we wanted to deliver to the general public just as more and more [cities] adopt, across the nation, Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day.

Victoria Massie

Recently, a proposal to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day was rejected in Cincinnati, Ohio. Even as more cities adopt the Indigenous Peoples holiday, what is it about Columbus Day that finds people still resisting change? What is it about this holiday that people can't just let go?

Gino Barichello

Well first, I want to address the specific case in Cincinnati. Within Cincinnati, it's my understanding that it really boils down to a political issue between mayoral candidates who are on city council, and it being divisive.

But in response to your question about the resistance to Indigenous Peoples Day, I think it's twofold. I think that really what is happening is that any sort of change, especially when it comes down to American history, I think that people are accustomed to understanding that this is tradition. And so to change it at this point is a bit unnerving. “Why change it at this point? What is the problem? Why do we need to change it?” There's that issue.

But also I think, more and more, I feel that what I'm receiving is there's resistance from the Italian-American community. Just for your background knowledge, on my mother's side, I'm half Maskoki or Creek from Oklahoma. That was her tribal affiliation. And then, on my father's side, I'm Italian American. And I embrace those cultural identities, both of them.

I have a strong affiliation with identifying as an Italian American, so I've pondered this question. Is Columbus revered back in Italy as some sort of heroic figure? I've traveled there about five or six times — I speak the Italian language; I have relatives and connections — just in [the] quest for my own personal knowledge.

It's not as though Columbus, there in Italy, is celebrated as some iconic historic figure. So it's something pretty well-steeped within American culture. And in particular, through Italian Americans.

I'm not sure why those Italian Americans are so interested in preserving Columbus Day. Now, more recently, there has been a case made to change the name from Columbus Day to Italian Heritage Day or Italian American Day. Both of those seem like a nice compromise to celebrating Columbus that, if you do a little bit of history, will reveal [his violent] goings-on, and maybe rethink treating Columbus like a hero. It's a continuation of dialogue. And I think it's important to ask why we need to celebrate Columbus and hold him up as a hero.

And just to be clear, for our group in Berkeley, our purpose is really just to celebrate Indigenous awareness: practices, indigenous language, indigenous songs, arts, crafts, dance. It's a day to come together to celebrate our many contributions to the nation.

Victoria Massie

Over the past few decades that the movement for Indigenous Peoples Day has been taking place, how has the public's ideas about indigenous people changed?

Gino Barichello

I think Native history is a part of American history, so as we grow as a nation, together, our histories are somewhat intertwined. You can certainly see it with governmental relationship with tribes and nations. That's been a part of our longstanding history: a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government. So I think they are intertwined.

But in terms of better understanding, a lot of people are more interested in adopting Indigenous Peoples Day. More and more educators. I should mention too that I'm a public school educator. I work with high school students here in the local Bay Area. But I think it's important that people do the research and kind of satisfy their own intellectual curiosity around Columbus and who he was.

Victoria Massie

What does Indigenous Peoples Day mean today in light of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota where protectors aren't just fighting to protect their water, but also find the fight for tribal sovereignty resurfacing?

Gino Barichello

Excellent question. Once the call to action was really issued from the Standing Rock [Sioux] reservation over the summer, more and more tribes or nations began to respond, like sending people to Standing Rock [Sioux reservation in North Dakota] to be with them, to peacefully protest this pipeline, and also just preserve the right for the tribal citizens there to protect their own house, their environment, and the water.

I think you can break that down at a very base level, and just indicate to people out there who are not in proximity to the Standing Rock reservation that this contaminates our waters and our environment. Not only our environment, but [everything from] our children to our crops to our environmental health here. And that kind of lets people reflect and empathize with what's going on and what [is] at stake here. You know, for us, it's an important issue. And it's because of these particular issues that we've dedicated our celebration in Berkeley this year to stand with those who are in Standing Rock.

We've had members of our planning committee for our event travel out and be part of the resistance movement there.

Victoria Massie

What do you and the committee in Berkeley hope to see as the Indigenous Peoples Day movement grows?

Gino Barichello

In answering that question, I want to say that I can represent my own view and I don't want to speak on behalf of the city, although they have sponsored us, and we have a strong working relationship. But I don't want to misrepresent anyone's views, so I will speak for myself.

My hope, as the coordinator of Indigenous Peoples Day for the last 10 years, is really just to create a greater awareness for the general public to know that Native American peoples have a proud history and we take our traditions, our ceremonies, our songs, very seriously. And it's important for that to be recognized and not misrepresented and misconstrued in any way.

So the more that we can do to be out there, to educate folks, to let them know about our practices, to let them know that we're still here, that we still have our own languages, we have our own songs, we have our own art, we have our own practices — that's my hope. And then we can have a better understanding to kind of avoid situations and having to explain ourselves for wanting to resist the [Dakota Access] pipeline being built close to our water that we're going to be using to nourish crops or nourish our young people. That's my hope, my vision. Just that through education that you can come together and celebrate our uniqueness and our contributions here in the country.