Seattle Marks Indigenous Peoples' Day Amid Calls to End Federal Holiday Celebrating Columbus

October 13, 2014
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Kshama Sawant

Socialist Seattle city councilmember in Seattle. She is a member of Socialist Alternative, a nationwide organization of social and economic justice activists.

Today marks Columbus Day, a federal holiday to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the so-called "New World" in 1492. But the holiday has long evoked sadness and anger among Native Americans, who object to honoring a man who opened the door to European colonization, the exploitation of native peoples, and the slave trade. Last Monday, the Seattle City Council unanimously adopted a resolution to celebrate the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the encouragement of indigenous activists — joining many other cities and states with non-Columbus Day holidays. "We’re making sure that we acknowledge the absolute horrors of colonization and conquering that happened in the Americas at the hands of the European so-called explorers, and Columbus was one of the primary instigators," says Socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, one of the sponsors of the resolution to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. She is a member of Socialist Alternative, a nationwide organization of social and economic justice activists.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today marks Columbus Day, a federal holiday to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the so-called "New World" in 1492. But the holiday has long evoked sadness and anger among Native Americans, who object to honoring a man who opened the door to European colonization, the exploitation of native peoples, and the slave trade. Their outrage has led to campaigns like this one.

RECONSIDER COLUMBUS DAY AD: Columbus committed heinous crimes against the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and millions of natives throughout the Americas. And Columbus set the stage for the slave trade in the New World. So, please, please reconsider if this is a man you want to honor. Reconsider if you want to celebrate the crimes of Columbus. It’s not your fault; it happened a long time ago. But remaining neutral and pretending like it didn’t happen, or that it doesn’t still impact us today? So, please, take a day to learn the whole story. Celebrate the people who were here first. Petition for a nationally recognized indigenous holiday.

AMY GOODMAN: ReconsiderColumbus.org, that project. Well, last Monday, the Seattle City Council unanimously adopted a resolution to celebrate the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Seattle is not the first place to give the holiday another name. This year, the Minneapolis City Council also renamed Columbus Day Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In South Dakota, the holiday is celebrated as Native American Day, while Hawaii observes Discoverers’ Day, which honors Polynesian explorers.

For more, we go to Seattle, Washington, where we’re joined by the Socialist city councilmember, Kshama Sawant, one of the sponsors of the resolution to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, that passed. Since taking office in January, she has also helped win a $15-an-hour minimum wage for all workers in Seattle. She’s a member of the Socialist Alternative, a nationwide organization of social and economic justice activists.

Kshama Sawant, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about this resolution that you got passed in the Seattle City Council.

KSHAMA SAWANT: Well, thank you for having me here, Amy. And first of all, I should say all the thanks for the amazing resolution we’ve passed go to the indigenous activists themselves, who brought this forward. And it’s an important milestone that we’ve had in all these cities—Berkeley in 1992, Minneapolis, Seattle and so on—because we’re making sure that we acknowledge the absolute horrors of colonization and conquering that happened in the Americas at the hands of the European so-called explorers. And Columbus was one of the primary instigators. He was a prolific slave owner. He was, not only single-handedly, but as a part of this European mission to plunder and pillage, responsible for mass enslavement and a genocide, which reduced the population of the indigenous communities from anywhere close to 150 million to a few thousand in just a mere matter of decades.

And I think we should clarify that some people have seen this as a slight against Italian Americans. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As a matter of fact, we should celebrate an Italian Heritage Day to celebrate the culture of the Italian community and also to celebrate the wonderful, courageous work that Italian Americans have done in their fight against racism, in their leading work in the early labor movements of the United States and the work they’re doing today as social justice activists.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response to some who were critical of this being passed. Among them, the criticism of the resolution, Seattle resident Ralph Fascitelli, who is Italian-American, said, quote, "We don’t argue with the idea of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We do have a big problem of it coming at the expense of what essentially is Italian Heritage Day. This is a big insult to those of us of Italian heritage. We feel disrespected. America wouldn’t be America without Christopher Columbus," he said. Your response, Kshama Sawant?

KSHAMA SAWANT: Well, I would say that most Italians would not equate Columbus Day to Italian Heritage Day. I don’t, in my mind, and the indigenous community do not equate Columbus Day to Italian Heritage Day. Columbus Day is a celebration of Columbus, and the story we’re told was that, you know, Columbus was an explorer, you know, a really intrepid person who really went on an adventure, and that’s supposed to be inspiring to us. But unfortunately, that is based on a lie. That idea of Columbus as an explorer is based on a lie. Columbus did not discover America. He plundered it, and he brutalized its people. And so, I would think that people, in general, whether they’re Italian or indigenous or any ethnicity, would want to align themselves with people who have stood for social justice, not somebody who represents a symbol of massacre and plunder. And I think that most Italian Americans that we’ve heard from, you know, through phone, from City Council and people that I run into, most of the people who are from the Italian-American community have thanked us for doing this and for representing their true ideas, that they do not want to celebrate somebody who is a symbol of racism and mass murder, and it really—you know, it really is an abomination.

But let’s come together to bring about an Italian Heritage Day and make sure that we don’t let this sort of thing, this sort of idea, this mythical idea that Columbus was an explorer, divide us. We all need to come together. In fact, if we look at what’s happening around us—you were just reporting about Ferguson—everything that’s happening around us is showing us that more and more people are realizing that, in general, this system of capitalism, that rests on a history of slavery and colonialism and continues the exploitation and war and violence to this day, is not working for us. We need an alternative. There’s never been a better time for us to be united and fight for socialism, fight against corporate domination.

AMY GOODMAN: Historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has written an open letter to President Obama asking him to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. She ends the letter with this call to action: quote, "It’s time for the United States government to make a gesture toward acknowledgement of its colonial past and a commitment to decolonization. Doing away with the celebration of Columbus, the very face of European colonialism, could be that gesture. In its place proclaim that fateful date of the onset of colonialism as a Day of Solidarity and Mourning with the Indigenous Peoples." Can you comment on this and whether President Obama has responded?

KSHAMA SAWANT: I don’t know that President Obama has responded. And in fact, I would not be surprised if he did not by himself, in the sense that it will need a mass movement that supports the demand of the indigenous community to revoke Columbus Day, because any change that the indigenous community or any other marginalized community has obtained, it’s been because of our own courage, because our own dedication for our willingness to step up and fight back. And the resolution that we have passed in Seattle, I see that as a part of that nationwide process to bring about justice to the indigenous community, not only in the form of a symbolic reparation, but actual changes. We want this resolution to be a building block to start a conversation, a real debate about why is it that we see such poverty, unemployment and such brutalization of our indigenous communities even today.

And I think that this conversation is much broader than it might appear on the surface. I mean, we are just coming back, Amy, you and I; we were at the People’s Climate March on September 21st. The question of climate change, the question of resource sustainability and who owns the resources and who gets to pay the price for the plunder of our natural resources, that issue is global, but it’s also connected to the fate of the indigenous communities. And they are some of the most—they have been some of the most courageous fighters against the Keystone XL pipeline, here in Washington against a Cherry Point coal terminal. So they are engaged in a fight against poverty, against marginalization. They’re also engaged in a fight against corporate domination, against the domination of Big Oil and Big Coal. And all over South America, all over the Amazon, we see indigenous activists courageously fighting back. Sometimes, you know, they have to pay with their life.

So I think we have to—now, our task on the left is to join these movements together, give a much more amplified voice to the struggles of the indigenous communities, by realizing that their struggle is connected to the black struggle in Ferguson, is connected to the struggle of women against sexism and sexual violence, is connected to the struggle of workers overall for workplace justice, and build a larger—a larger team of movements, an explosive era of social movements.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, an interesting connection you have to this issue. You come from India, Kshama Sawant. Christopher Columbus thought he was in India, which is why we call Native Americans Indians, is that right? Can you talk about that history?

KSHAMA SAWANT: That’s correct. Columbus was headed on a route to India. And again, the reason that they were headed to India is also very much connected to the need for a vast base of cheap, or preferably free, natural resources, free labor and extensive markets. I mean, this whole process of colonization, through which the Americas were colonized, through which my own continent in South Asia was colonized, Africa and South America experienced conquest, all of this process was not incidental. It was not because there were a few wantonly cruel people in that century. It happened because the early development of capitalism required those resources. It required to expend itself in that way. And capitalism in the early days also required slavery. It required these open markets. It required to establish monoculture, and that implied that they had to militarily control the land that they ended up occupying. In that way, India has had a similar history to the Americas, because we were also colonized by the Europeans and ultimately by a really well-established British Empire. And Indian people had to build strong movements—many of those movements were led by socialists—to gain independence.

But what we see right now, you know, in all of these continents, these neocolonial countries, we see that cycle of plunder and exploitation being repeated over and over again. You see this pattern going on over and over again. And I think the question we have to ask is: How long are we going to accept this, you know, inevitability in a system that will go on generating this cycle of poverty and exploitation and war, where more and more marginalized communities are going to be paying the price? So, I think this raises the larger question of systemic change that we need to talk about.


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