U.S. reassesses Columbus Day, Native American plight in focus

Fri Oct 9, 2015 8:04pm EDT
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By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - About four miles from the world's largest Christopher Columbus parade in midtown Manhattan on Monday, hundreds of Native Americans and their supporters will hold a sunrise prayer circle to honor ancestors who were slain or driven from their land.

The ceremony will begin the final day of a weekend "powwow" on Randall's Island in New York's East River, an event that features traditional dancing, story-telling and art.

The Redhawk Native American Arts Council's powwow is both a celebration of Native American culture and an unmistakable counterpoint to the parade, which many detractors say honors a man who symbolizes centuries of oppression of aboriginal people by Europeans.

Organizers hope to call attention to issues of social and economic injustice that have dogged Native Americans since Christopher Columbus led his path-finding expedition to the "New World" in 1492.

The powwow has been held for the past 20 years but never on Columbus Day. It is part of a drive by Native Americans and their supporters throughout the country, who are trying to rebrand Columbus Day as a holiday that honors indigenous people, rather than their European conquerors. Their efforts have been successful in several U.S. cities this year.

"The fact that America would honor this man is preposterous," said Cliff Matias, lead organizer of the powwow and a lifelong Brooklyn resident who claims blood ties with Latin America's Taino and Kichwa nations. "It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever."

But for many Italian Americans, who take pride in the explorer's Italian roots, the holiday is a celebration of their heritage and role in building America. Many of them are among the strongest supporters of keeping the traditional holiday alive.

Berkeley, California, was the first city to drop Columbus Day, replacing it in 1992 with Indigenous Peoples Day. The trend has gradually picked up steam across the country.   Continued...

Travis Mazawaficuna of the Dakota Nation (Sioux) Native American tribe arrives with others to the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples outside the United Nations in Manhattan, New York, in this file photo taken August 9, 2013.  REUTERS/Adrees Latif/Files