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Challenging Columbus Day: Denver Organizers Discuss Why They Protest the Holiday

StoryOctober 06, 2006
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Monday is known as Columbus Day, which is supposed to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the so-called “new world” in 1492. But the holiday has long caused anger amongst people of color, especially Native Americans, who object to honoring a man who opened the door to European colonization, the exploitation of native peoples and the slave trade. We talk to Glenn Morris of the American Indian Movement of Colorado and Glenn Spagnuolo of Progressive Italians Transforming the Columbus Day Holiday. [includes rush transcript]

The first state commemoration of Columbus Day was in Colorado and when our “Breaking the Sound Barrier” tour visited the state earlier this month–I sat down with two activists who were working to transform the holiday. Glenn Morris is a member of the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado, an Attorney and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Denver. Glenn Spagnuolo is a member of Transform Columbus Day Alliance and the Director of PITCH–Progressive Italians Transforming the Columbus Day Holiday.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Morris is a member of the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado. He’s an attorney and associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Denver. Glenn Spagnuolo is a member of Transform Columbus Day Alliance and the director of PITCH, that’s Progressive Italians Transforming the Columbus Day Holiday. First, I asked them about the history of Columbus Day in the state of Colorado. This is Glenn Morris.

GLENN MORRIS: Columbus Day began — most people don’t know — as a state holiday in Colorado in 1907. But what’s more important for people to understand is the ideology behind Columbus Day and why there is a Columbus Day in the United States or in Colorado. And there’s been a lot of discussion lately about Hugo Chavez at the United Nations, when he raised up Noam Chomsky’s book, Hegemony or Survival.

And if we could begin a little bit by just reducing the terms “hegemony” and “ideology” to their simplest forms: if an ideology is a set of ideas that allows a nation or a people to describe reality in terms that are comfortable for them, but more importantly, that describes the world as it should be, and hegemony is driven by a national ideology that is so comprehensive that it becomes almost invisible, like water to fish or air to human beings, and in a sense then, we can understand Columbus Day as a hegemonic tool, the way that Chomsky uses the term, because it makes no historical sense to have a national holiday to Columbus in a country that he never visited, in a state that he never knew existed.

And so, we have to ask the very simple question: why does the holiday even exist? And it exists in part to advance a national ideology of celebrating invasion, conquest and colonialism. And the proponents of the Columbus Day holiday in Colorado and Columbus parades, and so on, make no bones about the fact that they’re celebrating the colonization of the Americas and, in fact, have told us on several occasions, “Look, we’re going to have this celebration. We’re going to have these parades to Columbus. And let’s get one thing straight,” they say to us. “This is not your country anymore. This is our country now. And you’d better get with the program.” So, for us, the celebration of Columbus, who was an African slave trader prior to coming to the Americas, then began the colonization of the Americas —


GLENN MORRIS: Well, Columbus sailed for the Portuguese on the Gold Coast of Africa, brought back gold and slaves to the Portuguese slave market in Portugal. That’s why when he arrived in the Caribbean, it became so easy for him to resort to his old practices and began to enslave Indian people to bring to the slave market in Seville. And so, we believe that Columbus as a national icon is a mistake and sends certainly the wrong message to schoolchildren about what is heroic about the history of this hemisphere. Certainly, the heroism of Columbus does not warrant a national holiday. In fact, he wasn’t a hero. He was a slave-trading Indian killer. And so, that’s why, in the birthplace of Columbus Day here in Denver, it’s such a big issue. Next year will be the centennial of the holiday. And we intend to make that a major focal point nationally.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Spagnuolo, you’re director of PITCH, Progressive Italians Transforming the Columbus Day Holiday. How did this holiday begin in Denver in 1907?

GLENN SPAGNUOLO: Well, it actually started down in Pueblo, if I’m correct, and when it got started — it’s really changed from the beginning to what it is now. Now, you have Italians who have latched onto this holiday, saying that this is a celebration of their Italian pride and a celebration of Christian ethics. And the more I looked at it, the more I learned that that’s not really the truth. This is just propaganda, used as tool to support the white privilege that they get from the oppression of Native Americans and the colonization of America.

Back in Italy, where my family came from, Columbus isn’t celebrated as a national hero. In Genoa, at the quincentennial, they actually tried to shut down the city, so a celebration wouldn’t occur there for tourists.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean? Who tried?

GLENN SPAGNUOLO: The Genoese who were there, the Italians, they didn’t want it to be used as a tool to bring tourism to that town, so they shut down the town. So, in Italy, he’s viewed as the scoundrel that he is.

And then, being raised as a Catholic and looking at Christian ethics, there’s nothing that Columbus did when he came here that supported any kind of Christian moral background. I mean, he stole. He murdered. He was greed, raped people. I mean, it was ridiculous. So, to see them now say that this is a celebration of Italian pride or of Christian ethics, it’s a false assertion, and it’s really used to support, like I said, colonialism, the exploitation of this country from its indigenous population, and to continue the view of white privilege that exists here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Spagnuolo and Glenn Morris. We’ll come back to them after break. I was speaking to them on our “Breaking the Sound Barrier” 80-city tour, as we travel the country honoring Democracy Now! at ten, DN! at 10. […] We go to break now, and then come back to our discussion about the origins of and, well, what Columbus Day means today. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We return now to the conversation I had in Denver with Glenn Morris and Glenn Spagnuolo. I asked Glenn how the Italian American community responds to his group’s efforts to transform Columbus Day.

GLENN SPAGNUOLO: Well, obviously they have been very negative, made responses to us in the sense that, you know, we’re race traitors and that we don’t respect the Italian culture. But most of them have been here for generations and have actually lost touch with their own Italian culture. People from immigrant families who haven’t been here that long recognize their true Italian roots and realize that this is not a celebration of it. If they wanted to have a celebration of Italian pride, I would be the first one to help them organize it, and I’m sure that the American Indian Movement would assist in that, too, because they have nothing against anybody celebrating their own cultural values.

But this parade, this is hate speech, plain and simple. This is not a parade. It’s a “convoy of conquest,” as we call it, and I think that some of the members of the Sons of Italy who put this parade on are really not supporting Italian values, but are really trying instead to push an agenda. I mean, a lot of the issues that you see today, dealing with immigration, for instance, are connected directly to this parade. And the Sons of Italy realize that. Many of the members of the Sons of Italy are the same people who came out and protested the immigration marches that took place here. They had made the connection between the celebration of the colonization of this country and the oppression of the minorities here. And I think that all the other groups should look at that and make the same connections themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Morris, what are your plans for this Columbus Day?

GLENN MORRIS: Well, for this Columbus Day, we intend to make visible our opposition to the Columbus holiday and celebrations of colonialism, as we have in the past —- that is, with large, vigorous and lively opposition to the “hate speech parade,” as we call it. But really, Ms. Goodman, the point about the protest -—

AMY GOODMAN: You can call me Amy.

GLENN MORRIS: Thank you. The point about protesting Columbus Day and the holiday is not so much about Columbus, the man, or about parades — we all like parades — or holidays. The point is really about the legacy of Columbus. And from the American Indian Movement of Colorado’s perspective, and for many indigenous peoples’ perspectives, what’s important is the way in which the United States continues to celebrate this legacy of colonialism and imperialism. And that’s embodied in federal Indian law. The Doctrine of Discovery was institutionalized in 1823 in the Supreme Court case of Johnson v. McIntosh, where John Marshall uses — fabricates the Doctrine of Discovery to justify the diminishment of Indian title to the Americas.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain, not in legalese. What do you mean, the Doctrine of Discovery?

GLENN MORRIS: Essentially, what Marshall says in Johnson v. McIntosh is that by virtue of the arrival of Christian civilization, the right of native peoples to their traditional homelands and territories is diminished, because of the blessings that Christian civilization have brought to the western hemisphere. And that opinion is the foundation for federal Indian law in the United States that continues to be enforced day after day after day ’til 2006.

We have a case in Nevada right now with the Western Shoshones, in which the title to their land was considered to be extinguished under this Doctrine of Discovery — not in 1823, not in 1890 — in the 1980s, and it continues to the present, to the point where the United Nations, the Committee on the Elimination of the Racial Discrimination and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have said that through this Doctrine of Discovery, the application of the Doctrine of Discovery, the United States has been involved in gross violations of fundamental human rights.

Now, the United States, of course, continues to ignore those decisions, but in addition to that, this Doctrine of Discovery and the principles of federal Indian law have been exported from the United States to be applied in Canada, in Australia, in New Zealand, in other English common law countries, like India and Kenya and South Africa. And so, this is not merely a discussion about a parade or about a holiday to a long-dead historical figure. This is about a legacy that continues to drive imperialism today.

And we see that embodied in the Bush administration. I don’t know if you’ve read Robert Kaplan’s book, Imperial Grunts, but Kaplan, who is a favorite of the Bush administration, and reportedly Bush read the book, Imperial Grunts. And in the book, Kaplan admits that today the United States continues to fight the Indian wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Philippines, in Colombia, where they continue to call any territory that is not under the control of the U.S. military “Indian country.” That is, it needs to be subdued, it needs to be civilized. This war, this clash of civilizations, so-called clash of civilizations that’s going on in the world today, it’s not new. That was a war that was being fought in this area right here where we’re sitting for many generations, in order to bring the heathen territories into the civilized Christian fold. So that’s really what we’re talking about, is beginning to address the ideology that drove the Indian wars, and the line can be traced continuously from October 12, 1492, to the present.

So, what we’re saying from the American Indian Movement of Colorado, from the Transform Columbus Day Alliance, is that we can create a different future. And that’s what we intend to do in the streets of Denver, is to begin a movement that says: this country needs to re-examine its history; it needs to report that history differently to its children; it needs to impart certain values and moral traditions to succeeding generations, that it’s not okay to go to someone else’s country and steal it and kill them and engage in genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Specifically in the streets, what will you do? What are the plans for direct action?

GLENN MORRIS: We first will have — we will conduct a four directions march, in which people from all ethnic and racial communities, different faith-based communities, will come from four directions in Denver and converge at the state capitol. This will be the night before the parade, But the day of the parade, there will be vigorous political action to express our opposition to the parade, because we believe, in the birthplace of Columbus Day, it’s important to set an example for the kind of — not just for what we’re against, which is the expression of hate speech as embodied in the Columbus holiday, but also what we’re for. And what we are for is the transformation of the holiday. And so, if it takes people risking their liberty through acts of civil resistance, then perhaps that’s what’s in order for the day.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Spagnuolo, have you been speaking to the Italian community? Is there any dialogue taking place?

GLENN SPAGNUOLO: Every year there has been dialogue that took place. We’ve actually had conversations facilitated by human rights commissions to try to find some kind of common ground, but as Glenn has stated, the remarks are to the point of almost being belligerent from the Sons of Italy to the fact of there is no give there. It’s the view, like they said, that “This is our country now, and the indigenous population needs to get with the program.” Those are actual quotes from some of those meetings. So when you come with a mindset like that and are not willing to give up that privilege that you have and actually meet on neutral grounds and talk, we haven’t been able to obtain any kind of meaningful solution.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever feel like that?

GLENN SPAGNUOLO: I would say no. I mean, I did recognize that growing up, I did have a certain amount of privilege afforded to me. And, you know, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen that privilege. And I think it’s up to every one of us who are considered in a privileged class, white males in this country, to use that privilege to try to dismantle the white identity that’s been, I would say, perpetrated upon us, to be honest with you, because I think the first victim of the racist is the racist’s child. So I think it’s up to all of us to try to use that and break down the so-called club that exists for white identity. And instead of using our privilege for gain, for materialism, to use it to try to rectify situations that exist in this country, such as the genocide that continues ’til today of the indigenous populations here.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Morris, you’re a member of the Leadership Council of American Indian Movement, Colorado. You’re also professor at University of Colorado and an attorney. The ACLU has obtained more documents that appear to show the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has been watching antiwar groups in Denver as part of a domestic terror investigation. This came out earlier this year. The ACLU requested the files after people in groups were questioned by authorities regarding their involvement in protests in Colorado Springs in 2003 and the Denver Columbus Day parade of 2002.

GLENN MORRIS: Before I answer that question, if you don’t mind, I’d like to address your previous question to Glenn Spagnuolo. The characterization that the hate speech paraders are the Italian community, I think, is a mistake. I think in the protests that we’ve had in the past, frankly, we’ve had more members of the Italian community protesting the parade than have been in the parade. And so, I think in these kinds of discussions, language becomes extremely important. And so, when the characterization is that the Italian community supports the parade, I think part of that is generational. I think that certainly younger Italian Americans feel no particular allegiance to Christopher Columbus or to the ideology of Columbus or invasion. So I hope that we can make that clear. And we encourage Italian Americans from across the country, across the world, in fact — in fact, we have Italians from Italy who have vehemently expressed their opposition to the Columbus Day celebration in the United States. So I’d like to dispel that fallacy, that this is somehow some monolithic position within the Italian American community. Or that this is an Indian versus Italian conflict, because it’s not. It’s about people of goodwill who want to convert racism into anti-racism, and so that really is the essence of it.

But to your question about the JTTF and the Denver Police Department’s spy files, to us, that’s an expression of the Columbian legacy. When first the spy files story broke in about 2002, and the spy files were released from the Denver Police Department and then ultimately from the JTTF, one thing that we found was that most people’s Denver police spy files were about maybe, for organizations, five, six, ten, maybe 30 pages. When we made the request for the American Indian Movement of Colorado’s files, the first request we got was about 150 pages. And then we said, we know that that’s not all, so we kept pressing, about 300 pages, then about 500 pages. Finally they released 1,500 pages to us, far surpassing any other organization, any other individuals. There were documents in the file that indicated that some of us were to be assassinated. The FBI had confirmed evidence that some of us were to be assassinated.


GLENN MORRIS: By different people who didn’t like us, and so the Denver police had that information and didn’t release it to us. And so, as you can see, it didn’t come to fruition, but not because of any efforts by the FBI or the Denver police to stop it. And so, that’s — to us, that’s an expression, though, of this continuing anti-Indian ideology, even in the Denver Police Department and the city officials today, who refuse to take a position against this hate speech that began in their city, or state officials, state legislators, who refuse to take a position against this hate speech that emanated from this state.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Morris, we only have two more minutes, but when you came into the studio here today at Rocky Mountain PBS, you brought a large photograph of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaking in Fort Carson several years ago. Why?

GLENN MORRIS: To us, that represents this continuing ideology, this hegemony that Chomsky talks about. And it is confirmation that Rumsfeld and Cheney and the Rumsfeld-Cheney doctrine around the world is an expression that began — an expression of policy that began with Columbus, continued through the entire Indian war period of the United States and continues today. If you look at this picture, you’ll see that Rumsfeld is giving a speech, sending off U.S. soldiers from Fort Carson, which is itself, a semiotic — you know, this symbolism of colonialism. Kit Carson was not a hero to native people. Kit Carson was an Indian killer. He caused the relocation of Diné people to Bosque Redondo. He engaged in the Sacramento River Massacre in the 1840s. So Kit Carson was not a heroic figure either.

AMY GOODMAN: How was Kit Carson connected to Fort Carson?

GLENN MORRIS: It’s named after Kit Carson. Fort Carson is named after Kit Carson. So Rumsfeld is giving this speech at Fort Carson, about to send off these soldiers immediately behind him to Iraq, but behind those soldiers is the color guard for Fort Carson. And you’ll notice that they’re in different uniforms. They’re in the uniforms of the Indian wars, of the 1870s, ’80s and ’90s. And those soldiers represent the continuity, the soldiers immediately behind Rumsfeld represent the continuity of the Indian wars. That is expressed by the color guard, still dressed in the uniform of Custer, of Sheridan, of Crook, of the other Indian killers of the 19th century.

And if you look at the picture, you’ll see that those soldiers have yellow kerchiefs around their neck. So all of these people that have the support the troops magnets on their car that are yellow ribbons? That’s the genesis of that, that they even made — I believe it was 1949 — John Wayne made a movie with John Ford called She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and the tradition of those yellow ribbons is that the cavalry that would go out to kill Indians, before they left, they would take that yellow kerchief off, tie it in their wife or their girlfriend’s hair, and say, “You wear this until I come back safely from killing Indians.” So the Indian wars continue even in these little icons. That’s hegemony. It’s so impervious — I mean, it’s so pervasive in this society that we don’t even recognize it.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Morris, a member of the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado, and Glenn Spagnuolo with Transform Columbus Day Alliance.

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