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Different Beat For Today's Columbus Day

By Courtland Milloy
Monday, October 11, 2004; Page B01

"They are all naked and have no knowledge of arms and are very cowardly, for a thousand of them would not face three Christians: and so they are suitable to be governed and made to work and sow and do everything else that shall be necessary, and to build villages and be taught to wear clothing and observe our customs."

-- From the log of Christopher

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Columbus, Dec. 16, 1492, after

meeting a group of Indians

on the island of Hispaniola.

Christopher Columbus won't be celebrated today at the newly opened National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall. But there won't be a Columbus Day protest, either. Instead, the man credited with "discovering" America in 1492 will simply be ignored while native people gather to reflect on more than 20,000 years of survival in this hemisphere.

"I don't think a lot of native people would actually celebrate Columbus Day in the way other Americans would," said Jim Pepper Henry, assistant director of community services at the museum and a member of the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma. "I would say that, in this case, despite some of the things that were put into motion with Columbus reaching the Americas, native people still persevered. That's how a lot of them feel about it."

Beginning at 10 a.m. in the museum's Potomac Rotunda, a group of native people from Hawaii will demonstrate traditional canoe-building techniques. A drumming group from the Washington area will perform rhythms that have lasted through the millennia. At noon, a variety of tribal members will dance to the beat, showing off styles of social dancing. The public is invited to join in.

In other cities, however, the occasion has not been as sociable.

On Saturday in Denver, about 600 protesters blocked a Columbus Day parade for an hour before police moved in and made about 230 arrests. Most of the protesters were Native Americans who carried such signs as "Not Genocide, Celebrate Pride" and one that showed a picture of Columbus with the word "savage" written over it.

Glenn Morris, a leader with the American Indian Movement of Colorado and co-chairman of the political science department at the University of Colorado, told the Denver Post that historical documents show that Columbus oversaw the slaughter of native people and traded African slaves. "People should be asking why they haven't been told that part of the story," Morris said.

Complaints about ethnic stereotyping and misrepresentation are certainly nothing new in the United States. When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited two members of the "Sopranos" cast to walk with him in the 2002 Columbus Day parade, for instance, Italian Americans protested that they were being portrayed as a bunch of murderous Mafioso.

In Washington, the official Columbus Day observance will be at 10:45 a.m. at Union Station's Columbus Memorial Statue and Fountain, at Delaware and Massachusetts Avenues NE. There will be a wreath-laying ceremony by the Armed Forces Joint Honor Guard, Knights of Columbus Color Corps and Marine Band. Monika Grzesik, national youth essay contest winner, will read from her entry, "A Day in the Life of Christopher Columbus," which is not likely to include the parts cited by Morris.

The first recorded celebration of Columbus, who is believed to be of Italian descent, occurred Oct. 12, 1792. Organized by the Society of Tammany, also known as the Columbian Order, it commemorated the 300th anniversary of Columbus's landing.

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Oct. 12 as Columbus Day, a national holiday; in 1971, President Richard M. Nixon set the second Monday in October as a federal public holiday.

Tempers have been flaring since.

The group United Native America continues to circulate petitions by the tens of thousands asking that Columbus Day be replaced by a national holiday for Native Americans. This infuriates George Vendegnia, a founder of the Sons of Italy-New Generation in Denver and an organizer of last weekend's parade.

"No one can tell us, as Americans, what we can celebrate and what we can't," he told the Denver Post. "This is the holiday we've chosen. This guy discovered this country."

Meanwhile, at the Museum of the American Indian, a steady, 20,000-year-old beat goes on.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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