U.S. Cities and States Moving to Drop Columbus Holiday in Favor of Indigenous People’s Day

Interview with Norman Clement , an Indigenous Penobscot man & Indigenous People’s Day organizer, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The history of Columbus Day has been officially intertwined with Italian culture in the U.S. since President Benjamin Harrison declared a one-time national holiday in 1892 on the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus sailing to the Americas. This occurred after 11 Italian-Americans were murdered in New Orleans at a time when Italians were denigrated as dirty, lazy and dangerous. In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress declared it a national holiday to be celebrated annually, after lobbying by the New Haven, CT-based Catholic fraternal order the Knights of Columbus.

But in recent years, support has been growing to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in recognition of the victims and survivors of the atrocities perpetuated by Columbus. To date, eight states and many cities and counties have made the switch.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Norman Clement, an indigenous Penobscot man whose roots are in Maine, but who is a longtime New Haven, Connecticut resident and a confederated member of the now almost-disappeared local Quinnipiac people. He led a commemoration of Indigenous People’s Day on Oct. 14 on the New Haven Green, and talked about his and other groups’ efforts to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day and to make the new holiday truly meaningful.

NORMAN CLEMENT: Like he just came here and discovered all of us, but nothing about his murder, his rape, his enslavement, the genocide that he started. In fact, there were two lawyers that the Knights of Columbus had hired, and one was Ojibway and I think one was Micmac, and they were, like, well, Columbus never actually landed on the continental U.S., so they never had an effect on our people, so, you, know, it was kind of ridiculous.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you say, what was the proclamation exactly? Was it sharing the day between Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day?

NORMAN CLEMENT: Yes. Of course, we wanted it gone. And like states and cities have proclaimed Indigenous People’s Day, and done away with Columbus Day. But how are they teaching the history? We’re not teaching the history of the indigenous people who were here before. I think we need to do that in our schools; the curriculum needs to change. The Board of Ed just said we’re going to start teaching black history in our elementary schools and Latino history. But what about us? What about the history of the Quinnipiacs, what happened to them? There is so much history we need to know about this country and we need to know that before we move on. We just can’t gloss over the fact that a hundred million people were killed, like, it’s the biggest genocide ever, and we just gloss over it.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I did an interview with a woman from Massachusetts who was working to get a statewide declaration of Indigenous Peoples Day and to get rid of Columbus Day altogether. And she said sharing this day between Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day is like sharing Adolf Hitler’s birthday with Holocaust Remembrance Day, exactly!

NORMAN CLEMENT: I told City Hall that. I told the alders that. They didn’t listen to me, obviously, and here we are stuck with this again. This year Columbus Day was celebrated on Saturday (Oct. 12) I guess. I was here; I wasn’t in town. But I went by the statue [of Columbus] this morning and saw all the wreaths the politicians put on there. So, you can’t on one hand you’re okay with celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day while you’re still doing that. And where are the politicians today now that we have Indigenous People’s Day. Why don’t we have a Quinnipiac flag up on that flagpole? Where is it? Why are we left out?

I want Columbus erased from history. Future generations should not even know who he was. It should never be mentioned again.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Are you optimistic that since other cities and even whole states are getting rid of Columbus Day and just making it Indigenous People’s Day that at some point either New Haven and/or the state of Connecticut will do that?

NORMAN CLEMENT: Yes, of course. Columbus Day was proclaimed, I think, in 1924, somewhere around there, and we’ve had to live with it ever since. It was changed a few times from being on the 12th to being on the Monday so people could have a three-day weekend, but it’s been here since then. There’s been a lot of movement and it’s a positive sign that people are finally recognizing Indigenous People’s Day. And next month (November) is Indigenous People’s Month so we’re gonna celebrate all month. I’m going to go to the National Day of Mourning, as I go every year. This year is the 50th anniversary of the National Day of Mourning, so I hope that everybody makes it up there and hears the true story of Thanksgiving, or what is called Thanksgiving, because that was just another massacre that happened.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Say more about that, because a lot of people don’t even know what that is. You’ve gone; I’ve seen you there several times. I haven’t gone as often as you have, but what goes on there, and what is that day? It’s held in Plymouth, Massachusetts every year.

NORMAN CLEMENT: Day of ceremony, we do a blessing like we did here to start off. Only indigenous speakers can talk that day. So, there’s people from around the country talking about different things. There’s actually two events that happened. One was that the Wampanoag were invited into the village and some of them were killed on the spot that day. Then the English went down from Boston to Mystic, Connecticut, and slaughtered over 700 Pequots in their sleep. When they went back, they had a celebration. That became Thanksgiving.

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