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L.A. Moves Closer To Replacing Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples Day

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Councilman Mitch O'Farrell (center in black suit and red tie) with a group that had presented on culture and traditions of Native Americans in the City of Los Angeles in 2015 at City Hall. (Photo courtesy of Mitch O'Farrell's office)
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Columbus Day has been a source of contention for decades, and it seems like every year there's discussion in the city about the validity of the holiday. On Wednesday, that discussion marches forward as a City Council committee—the Rules, Elections, InterGovernmental Relations & Neighborhoods Committee (what a mouthful)—is set to hold a rare 6 p.m. meeting to mull over the possibility of replacing the holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day.

When/if the committee arrives at a vote, committee members will vote on whether or not to send that recommendation (to establish Indigenous Peoples Day) to the City Council, at which point councilmembers will vote on whether or not to enact it in city code.

But what a minute. What does a "holiday" mean, really? Is Columbus Day as inconsequential as any one of the throwaway "days" that we have in the city (we're looking at you La La Land Day)? Actually, Columbus Day has real weight in the City of Los Angeles. While the holiday was nixed as a state holiday by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, in L.A. it's still a paid holiday for city workers. And yes, Columbus Day (which is celebrated on the second Monday of October) is still a federal holiday.

"If the decision is made to replace the holiday, that would change city code that spells out our city holidays. That day would no longer be attributed to Columbus Day, but attributed to Indigenous Peoples Day," Jeanne Min, chief of staff for councilman Mitch O'Farrell, told LAist.

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As noted at Time Magazine, about 30 U.S. cities (including Phoenix and Denver) have switched from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. In L.A., that same push picked up steam in 2016 when councilman O'Farrell, a member of the Wyandotte Native American tribe, introduced a motion to establish an Indigenous Peoples Day (the idea to swap the two holidays, however, wasn't introduced until it was recommended by the aforementioned committee). “Christopher Columbus’ legacy of extreme violence, enslavement, and brutality is not in dispute. Nor is the suffering, destruction of cultures, and subjugation of Los Angeles’ original indigenous people, who were here thousands of years before anyone else,” O'Farrell said in the motion, according to CBS2.

"Indigenous Peoples Day represents a shift in consciousness," Dr. Leo Killsback, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and assistant professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, told CNN. "It acknowledges that indigenous peoples and their voices are important in today's conversations."

He added: "We should question why we as Americans continue to celebrate him without knowing the true history of his legacy, and why a holiday was created in the first place. He never landed in the USA."

This, we should mention, is true: what Columbus came upon was actually the Bahamas archipelago and an island named Hispaniola, now split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He'd never actually set foot on what we now call the United States. As to why the U.S. upholds Columbus as the The Discoverer Of America, it largely has to do with pride and politics. It's John Cabot who deserves mention as being the first person from the Old World to arrive on our shores. The problem was that Cabot, while an Italian like Columbus, had sailed under the British flag. And a nascent America, looking for a figurehead to represent their young nation, passed over Cabot for his British ties, and settled instead on Columbus.

But if Columbus' body of work is suspect, and there's growing momentum around the idea of an Indigenous Peoples Day, why is the holiday swap taking so long? As the L.A. Times notes, there are a number of reasons. For one thing, Columbus Day is, to many, a celebration of Italian-American heritage, rather than a day of worship for a specific figure. In fact, the holiday started after some hard lobbying from a group called the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization consisting largely of Italian Americans—President Franklin D. Roosevelt bowed to the pressure and proclaimed October 12, 1937 as the first Columbus Day. Future efforts to remove Columbus Day have been branded as being anti-Italian American by some. Here in L.A., a 2002 City Council decision to remove Columbus Day as a paid holiday (and having Cesar Chavez Day as a paid holiday, instead), was rebuffed by several prominent Italian Americans, including former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who signed off on a letter that condemned the action.

When O'Farrell's motion was introduced last year, Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is Italian American, said he was receptive of an Indigenous Peoples Day, but did not agree with replacing Columbus Day with it. “I support the creation of Indigenous Peoples Day here in Los Angeles...but not at the expense of another cultural heritage,” said Buscaino.

Another obstacle: it would take an act of Congress to remove Columbus Day as a federal holiday. Certainly, moving anything through Congress is tough slog. And what makes it more difficult is that it seems like there isn't a true political will to expunge Columbus Day, as Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians, told the Times. And while there's growing support to remove the holiday, it may not have yet reached a majority approval among the public—a 2013 poll showed that 58% of Americans still want to celebrate the explorer.