“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” begins the childhood rhyme taught to many American students around this time of year leading up to Christopher Columbus Day. I suppose that sounds more palatable to most Americans than singing, “In 1492, Columbus led a murderous crew.”
The Italian explorer and colonist from Genoa, Italy, departed from Spain and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on a voyage to Asia. In the midst of this journey, he found — or should I stay “stumbled upon” — what is now known as the Bahamas. His discovery opened up the vast land for Europeans to conquer and settle. It’s a celebrated event in history that led to famine, disease, theft, war, enslavement, and genocide for the people already living on those “discovered” lands.
Some people are fed up with the glorification of the man who initiated those sorrows.
Indigenous inhabitants across the Americas, including Native Americans in this country, have been working for years to stop the glorification of Christopher Columbus. Many of the organizers are pushing for a national holiday to recognize native peoples’ history, culture, struggles, and contributions. And not just any day. Often, they want Columbus Day, the national holiday that lands this year on Monday, Oct. 8. That’s when a North Texas-based community organization is hosting Dallas Demands Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The group, In Solidarity, whose members focus on public service, civil engagement, and social activism, hopes to gather locals to protest outside of Dallas City Hall.
The goal is to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day and to replace Christopher Columbus Day in Dallas.
Leroy Pena, a North Texas resident from Corpus Christi born of Mexican and Lipan Apache descent, will be there. He has been an activist for about 30 years, attending marches and protests across the country. Recently he participated in the demonstrations at Standing Rock, North Dakota, with other Native Americans against the Dakota Access Pipeline. He has also rallied in support of Botham Jean, the Dallas man who was recently shot and killed in his apartment by an off-duty police officer.
Pena has been advocating for Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a national holiday for about five years, he said. He doesn’t think much of Christopher Columbus.
“He is a genocidal butcher,” Pena said. “I want [the federal government] to abolish Columbus Day. He wasn’t even the first non-indigenous person to step foot on land here–. [The Norse explorer] Leif Erickson beat him.”
There has been a growing debate in the United States, more so in the South, about the purpose, meaning, and symbolism of monuments, celebrations, and historical figures. Are they just a part of our history? Are we attempting to erase history by removing them? Are we celebrating racists and murderers? These questions sometimes center on the man credited as the founder of America, Columbus.
Countries such as Brazil and Canada mark official days to recognize indigenous and native peoples. In December 1994, the United Nations created the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples to recognize the struggles they face worldwide. Today they make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population but account for 15 percent of the poorest people in the world, according to the United Nations.
In Texas, the city of Austin and nearby Bexar County have recognized the day, and Corpus Christi will be joining the list soon because of Pena, who in September spoke with that city’s elected officials and convinced them of the holiday’s significance. Pena made the request via The Red Handed Warrior Society, a group he formed recently to promote various social and civil issues.
“We don’t have a day honoring the tribes here, and it’s only fitting after this much time—,” Pena told the Corpus Christi City Council. “It’s been a long time coming.”
The official day of recognition – Native Tribes of the Coastal Bend Day – will be Tuesday, Oct. 23.
In Solidarity has created an online petition for supporters in Dallas. So far, about 400 people have signed it, a paltry percentage of the area’s population. According to the event page, members of the organization have made several attempts to speak to Dallas City Council members about making the holiday official but feel they are being ignored. The protest is considered an opportunity to be heard and gain traction on the issue.
Activists would consider it a major win to convince Dallas, the nation’s ninth most populated city, to observe the holiday.
“Dallas needs to recognize the indigenous people here,” Pena said. “We’ve played a huge part in the creation of Texas.”