Today's federal holiday dedicated to Christopher Columbus is highlighting the ongoing divide between those who view the explorer as a representative of Italian American history and others horrified by an annual tribute that ignores native people whose lives and culture were forever changed by colonialism.
Spurred by national calls for racial equity, communities across the U.S. took a deeper look at Columbus' legacy in recent years -- pairing or replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day.
On Friday, President Joe Biden issued the first presidential proclamation of "Indigenous Peoples' Day," the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Columbus.
But activists, including members of Native American tribes, said ending the formal holiday in Columbus' name has been stymied by politicians and organizations focusing on Italian American heritage.
"The opposition has tried to paint Columbus as a benevolent man, similar to how white supremacists have painted Robert E. Lee," said Les Begay, Navajo Nation member and co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples' Day Coalition of Illinois.
Columbus' arrival began centuries of exploration and colonization by European nations, bringing violence, disease and other suffering to native people already living in the Western Hemisphere.
"Not honoring Indigenous peoples on this day just continues to erase our history, our contributions and the fact that we were the first inhabitants of this country," Begay said.
Across the country tension over the two holidays has been playing out since the early 1990s.
Debates over monuments and statues of the Italian explorer tread similar ground, as in Philadelphia where the city placed a box over a Columbus statue last year in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. Protesters opposing racial injustice and police brutality against people of color rallied for months in summer 2020.
Philadelphia lawyer George Bochetto, who has been fighting Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney's administration to uncover the statue, said Saturday many felt efforts to remove it were an attack on Italian-American heritage.
Kenney previously signed an executive order changing the city's annual Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. Today will be the first city holiday under the new name.
"Removing the plywood covering during this holiday weekend would pose a serious public safety risk," city spokesperson Kevin Lessard said in a statement Saturday night. Earlier, he had said city officials would stop any attempt to remove the box before hearing from Commonwealth Court.
The city released the court decision shortly before 11 p.m. Eastern time, ending a day of legal wrangling over whether the statue would be visible this weekend.
Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick issued an order Saturday afternoon that immediately permitted a contractor to remove the box. It was announced at a news conference at Marconi Plaza by an attorney for supporters of the statue who gathered at its base.
"I have a crew on standby," attorney George Bochetto said, adding that they could remove the box "if not tonight, first thing tomorrow morning."
As the federal Columbus Day holiday approaches, a group of Italian-Americans in Baltimore is continuing to raise money to build a replica of the Christopher Columbus statue that was torn down and thrown into the Inner Harbor last summer.
The replica is almost complete and should be done by the end of October, said Bill Martin, an organizer of the statue's restoration who resides in Howard County. The base of the statue has yet to be sculpted and approximately $70,000 still needs to be raised, he said.
It remains unclear where the monument will go once it's finished.
"We're trying to figure out where it can really go to be appreciated without being destroyed," Martin said.
Word of the project -- and the legacy of the 15th century explorer's violent enslavement of native people -- remains hurtful to Indigenous people in the Baltimore area.
Jennifer Folayan, a lead organizer for Indigenous Strong, called the restoration hurtful but said "we want to focus on our next Seven Generations" -- an Indigenous philosophy that says decisions made today should be sustainable seven generations into the future.
"Here in our Indigenous community, we're still open to having healing and conversations," said Folayan, who is of Pueblo, Cherokee and Aztec descent.
The Columbus statue, carved in Italian Carrara marble, stood in Little Italy since 1984 when it was dedicated by President Ronald Reagan and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Protesters tore it down on July 4, 2020, tossing some of it into the harbor nearby. It was one of many monuments of enslavers or Confederate figures toppled or removed across the U.S. that year amid a national reckoning over racism.
In 2016, Lincoln, Neb., joined other cities adding Indigenous Peoples' Day to the calendar on the same date as Columbus Day. Events will focus today on the newer addition, including unveiling a statue honoring the first American Indian physician, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte.
DON'T SAY HIS NAME
Some feel a split day causes further harm. Activists plan a small protest outside the Robert V. Denney Federal Building, calling for an outright end to the holiday in Columbus' name at all levels of government.
"It's patently absurd to honor Indigenous people and the man who tortured and murdered their ancestors," said Jackson Meredith, an organizer. "As far as we're concerned, we're going to keep protesting it until Columbus Day is abolished."
In New York City, the annual Columbus Day Parade returns after a 1-year, in-person absence attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. The parade is touted by some as the world's largest Columbus Day celebration.
In May, Italian American activists complained after the Board of Education erased Christopher Columbus Day from the New York City school calendar, replacing it with "Indigenous People's Day." After the outcry, the schools changed the designation to: "Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People's Day."
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he supported the compromise.
"We have to honor that day as a day to recognize the contributions of all Italian-Americans, so of course the day should not have been changed arbitrarily," de Blasio said.
Chicago's annual Columbus Day parade also returns today after the pandemic forced 2020's cancellation of the event that draws 20,000 people. It's a vivid reminder of the ongoing fight over three statues of Columbus, still warehoused by the city after protesters targeted them in summer 2020.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot in July 2020 ordered the statues removed and said demonstrations were endangering protesters and police.
She later created a committee to review monuments in the city, including the fate of Columbus monuments. No plans have been announced publicly, but the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans that plans the Columbus Day parade this summer sued the city's park district, demanding that one be restored.
Illinois in 2017 designated the last Monday in September as Indigenous Peoples Day but kept Columbus Day on the second Monday of October. A proposal to replace Columbus Day filed this year hasn't received any action.
Chicago Public Schools in 2020 voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, provoking anger from several alderman and Italian-American groups. The city's holiday calendar still lists Columbus Day.
Begay, the Indigenous Peoples Day advocate, said the organization decided to focus on changing Columbus Day first in Cook County, hoping it would be an easier path than persuading state or Chicago officials. But so far, members of the county's board haven't lined up behind the proposal.
"Why are 500 plus years still forgotten?" Begay said. "Why don't we have this single day to recognize these horrible atrocities committed against native people?"
Information was contributed by Kathleen Foody, Wilson Ring and Lawrence Neumeister of The Associated Press, by Jason Laughlin, Allison Steele and Elizabeth Robertson of The Philadelphia Inquirer and by Stephanie Garcia of The Baltimore Sun.