A Los Angeles city holiday recognizing Indigenous People is looking more and more like a foregone conclusion. The key remaining question is when.
And the key remaining battle is whether Indigenous People’s Day would replace Columbus Day, which currently celebrated the second Monday in October.
Proponents of Indigenous People’s Day like Rudy Ortega, Jr., tribal president of the Fernandeño Tataviam Tribe in San Fernando, say it should replace Columbus Day for historical atrocities by Columbus and his crew toward indigents that included enslavement, violence and murder, and forcing them to accept Christianity.
“Indigenous People were the first to walk this part of the continent,” Ortega said. “Since European settlers made their voyage here, we have been moved and pushed aside. Essentially, Indigenous People are frustrated and exhausted from this historical trauma.
“Acknowledging Indigenous People’s Day corrects the wrong and starts the healing.”
Last week the LA City Council’s Rules, Elections, Intergovernmental Relations and Neighborhoods Committee, following a vocal public hearing, unanimously endorsed a proposal by Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in the city, no later than 2019. O’Farrell is a member of Wyandotte Nation, originally from Oklahoma.
“I feel hopeful and I am enormously encouraged that Angelenos will have a yearly celebration that everyone can be proud of,” O’Farrell said after the hearing. “This is a big step forward toward a restorative, healing process for the Native American community.’’
A final council vote on the proposal has not been scheduled.
The proposal understandably does not resonate with various Italian American organizations.
Ann Potenza, president of Federated Italo-Americans (an umbrella of 130 Italo-American organizations in Southern California), said via email that “there is no question that the Natives have experienced great suffering, but I think it’s wrong to blame Columbus with “setting in motion” the demise of the Indigenous People without crediting contributions to their survival as well. If Columbus is to be blamed for death from smallpox and other diseases transported through blankets and interaction, then he must also be credited for the global exchange of food, plants, animals, people and technology that have saved many lives over the years.
“I believe there should be a day to honor the contributions of the Indigenous People who were here first and also a day to honor the Immigrants, whose contributions have made an impact as well. Columbus Day is the day to celebrate Immigrants and there are three other days on the calendar already designated for Native Americans/Indigenous People celebrations —I believe that one of those days should be chosen for them.”
Marcella Leonetti-Tyler of the National Italian American Foundation, Western Region, speaking for the organization’s Western region, said, “we don’t want to lose Columbus Day and there is no reason why we could not do something together.” But she believes the proponents eventually will get their way.
“We are willing to compromise. But I think we will end up with an Italian Heritage Day,” Leonetti-Tyler said, adding “each October has been Italian American Heritage Month in LA as deemed by the council.”
Councilmember Joe Buscaino, a first generation Italian American, said he found the proposal “troubling” and has promised to fight it when it comes to the full council for a vote.
Ortega said he knows of council members who support replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, and others who support having two separate holidays. He wants Columbus Day replaced.
“What it’s coming down to is that they may choose a separate day. That is our fear now,” Ortega said.
“If we are trying to be inclusive and bring American citizens together, we need to not be passive and to understand the truth so we can better understand each other’s differences, because that is not something we can get rid of. We can’t can’t decide who our parents are — we are who we are, and we’ve got to understand that,” he said.
O’Farrell’s original motion called for creating Indigenous People’s Day but did not specifically direct it to replace Columbus Day. A subsequent report from the Human Relations Commission made the recommendation to replace Columbus Day.
Observing a holiday like Columbus Day costs the city about $2 million in
overtime and more than $9 million in “soft” costs from reduced productivity, the report said.
“Instituting an additional paid holiday would be a fiscal challenge, given all other budget priorities facing the city,” the report said.
If approved by the full council, Los Angeles would join such cities as Seattle, Minneapolis, Berkeley and Santa Cruz in replacing Columbus Day with
Indigenous Peoples Day.
In 2009, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated the Columbus Day state holiday as part of a budget-cutting measure, but Los Angeles continues to observe the holiday as one of 12 where city workers get a paid day off.
Columbus Day has been a federal holiday since 1971.
City News Service contributed to this story.