Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

A City Council committee Monday ordered city officials to report back in about two months on the possibility of establishing an Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Los Angeles, either as a replacement for Columbus Day or as a separate holiday.

The Arts, Parks and River Committee called for the report following discussion of a motion by Councilman Mitch O’Farrell  — who is part Native American — to set aside a day each year in the city to recognize the history, culture and achievements of indigenous peoples.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day has typically been adopted in other cities as part of a wider movement critical of the celebration of Columbus Day, which falls on the second Monday of October.

Other cities have chosen to stop celebrating Columbus Day in favor of using the day to focus on Native Americans instead, but O’Farrell left his motion open to potentially allow both holidays.

Critics of Columbus Day say the holiday’s namesake is undeserving of the recognition, arguing that explorer Christopher Columbus’ arrival on the American continents led many of the people who had already been living there to be enslaved or their populations thinned.

Berkeley, Denver, Seattle, Anchorage, Portland and Albuquerque have already stopped observing Columbus Day and replaced it with Indigenous Peoples Day.

The idea of ending the observance of Columbus Day in Los Angeles has met with resistance from members of the Italian-American community, with some telling the Arts, Parks and River Committee Monday that the explorer has special significance to their cultural heritage, as well as to American history.

The celebration of Columbus by Italian immigrants was an attempt “to prove their  patriotism and value in a country that viewed them with suspicion and contempt,” according to Italian American Museum of Los Angeles Executive Director Marianna Gatto.

She noted that her relatives arrived in New Orleans the same day several Italians were lynched.

Ann Potenza, with Federated Italo-Americans of Southern California, credited Columbus’ journey with the “great birth of immigration” by Europeans and others to the Americas, adding that it is celebrated as “a voyage of discovery” for the continents.

Phil Bartenetti, a regional coordinator for the National Italian American Foundation, also opposed the creation of a holiday around Native Americans at the cost of Columbus Day.

“This is one day that we are burnished in the mosaic which is America,” he said. “That is our day. To take it away would be a slap in the face (of) a 20 million group of folks in this country who have worked to make this country great.”

Emiliano Martinez, speaking in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, called it “a step toward historical justice” and questioned the choice of Columbus as the representative for the accomplishments of Italian Americans.

“For the Italian Americans here that want to keep Columbus … why can’t you pick  another person? Amerigo Vespucci seems a little more relevant than Columbus,” Martinez said.

According to Chrissie Castro, vice chair of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, Columbus played a “pivotal role” in a major “genocide” of Native American people.

The creation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day to replace Columbus Day in Los Angeles “is about taking a stand against that genocide,” Castro said.

“There is a great need for race healing and race equity in this country, and I believe that the only way that we’re going to get there is by truth-telling,” she said.

Castro added that “people think holidays don’t matter — there are worse issues — but this is so critical to the future of our people.”

Representatives of the city’s Human Relations Commission, which will be leading the research into the two holidays and the interviews with various stakeholders, pledged to  present an impartial report in which both sides feel their voices have been heard.

Gaspar Rivera Salgado, a UCLA professor who sits on the commission, called the proposal around the two holidays “a very heartfelt issue” for both sides and stressed that the panel will create opportunities for voices to be heard, “both in separate spaces so they can express freely their sentiment, and also … create some spaces where they can exchange different points of view.”

“One important issue that we’re tasked with is to move beyond the easy identity politics on this issue, to really create a space in the city of Los Angeles that embraces all different peoples that make up this wonderful community,” he said.

The commission’s executive director, Patricia Villasenor, said its members will be “meeting with not only academics on the issue, but also meeting with people and organizations that feel kinship” toward either Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

She added that in initial talks with groups representing either side, there was little antagonism, with the primary desire being reconciliation.

O’Farrell said he hoped creation of an Indigenous Peoples’ Day would not create any new costs, and stressed that his goal was not to create another paid time-off day for city workers.

Terry Sauer, an analyst with the City Administrative Office, said that while renaming Columbus Day would not have any costs, “there is some cost associated with creating a new holiday.”

“Typically it’s a soft-dollar cost, and there may be overtime implications, she said.

Councilman David Ryu, taking up Sauer’s offer to report back on those costs, also requested that the CAO’s office come back with “the fiscal implications” of creating an “extra paid holiday, just so we have all options on the table.”

O’Farrell introduced the idea of an Indigenous Peoples’ holiday last November, the same day as a Native American Heritage Month luncheon at which he called the observance of Columbus Day a “travesty.”

O’Farrell — his father is Irish American and his mother a member of the Wyandotte Nation tribe — said he grew up hearing teachers describing Columbus as a “great man.” But over the years, it has become “less acceptable to really even mention his name in a positive light,” he said.

While O’Farrell was strongly critical of Columbus Day, he would not say if he would go as far as supporting ending its observance in Los Angeles.

The idea of replacing Columbus Day was almost immediately opposed by Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is Italian American. He said in a statement that for families like his, “who immigrated to the United States, Columbus Day celebrates a commitment to cross an ocean and a border and start a new life in the new world.”

—City News Service

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