“The historical record is unambiguous in documenting the horrors Christopher Columbus and his men exacted on the native peoples he encountered,” Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, a member of the Wyandotte Nation, said in a statement before the 14-1 vote.
The move to rename the holiday faced fierce opposition from Italian Americans who see Christopher Columbus and his arrival in the Americas as an important part of their culture. Some opponents of the decision encouraged designating a day to honor indigenous and aboriginal peoples, while still observing Columbus Day.
But for Native American groups, removing the reference to Columbus altogether was a symbolic and historically necessary change. Chrissie Castro of the Los Angeles City-County Native American Indian Commission had urged the council to “dismantle a state-sponsored celebration of genocide of indigenous peoples,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
The movement to oust Columbus Day also comes as cities and states nationwide are taking down Confederate statues, which many see as symbols of hate and oppression. The national debate over Confederate monuments heightened earlier this month after a deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
O’Farrell compared these efforts to his proposal to replace Columbus Day.
“As statues aggrandizing the Confederacy topple across the South, so too should this symbol of oppression and genocide,” he said in a statement.
Activists across the country have made calls to take down statues of Columbus, such as New York City’s famous Columbus Circle statue. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, faced backlash from the city’s large Italian American population for refusing to rule out removing the statue — he has ordered a 90-day review of “symbols of hate” on city property.
But de Blasio, an Italian American himself, said he will still be marching in the city’s annual Columbus Day parade.
Other cities, including Minneapolis, Phoenix and Seattle have swapped the Columbus Day holiday with a day honoring indigenous peoples in recent years. The states of Alaska and Vermont have also adopted Indigenous People’s Day.
In fact, in 2009, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) got rid of the Columbus Day state holiday as part of a budget-cutting measure. But Los Angeles city and county offices continued to mark the holiday.
Wednesday’s decision came after an emotional, at times heated debate that pitted two city councilmen against each other — O’Farrell, who has close ties to his Native American roots, and Joe Buscaino, who is a first generation Italian American.
He had suggested naming Aug. 9 as Indigenous Peoples Day and deeming Columbus Day as a day to celebrate the city’s various cultures, a proposal that was turned down by the city council.
“With or without Columbus, Italians will continue to celebrate their sacrifices and contributions to this great country and this great city,” Buscaino said after the vote.
Before the decision, Native American activists took part in a prayer and ceremonial dance inside city hall. Meanwhile, Italian Americans voiced their opposition.
“On behalf of the Italian community, we want to celebrate with you,” said Ann Potenza, president of Federated Italo-Americans of Southern California, the Los Angeles Times reported. “We just don’t want it to be at the expense of Columbus Day.”
O’Farrell said his proposal designated Oct. 12, the day Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492, as Italian American Heritage Day. But paid city employees would not have the day off.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the first Columbus Day as Oct. 12, 1937, after an intense campaign led by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization.
But as NPR noted, more than half of U.S. states don’t require that paid employees get the holiday off. As of 2015, only 23 states mandated the holiday.
Following the Los Angeles City Council’s decision, O’Farrell quoted Lakota activist Bill Means, referring to a comment he made to Minnesota Public Radio in 2014, the year Minneapolis designated the holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day.
“We discovered Columbus, lost on our shores, sick, destitute, and wrapped in rags. We nourished him to health, and the rest is history,” Means said. “He represents the mascot of American colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. And so it is time that we change a myth of history.”