Ten months after the city of Durango unanimously voted to celebrate the conquered rather than the conqueror, more than 200 people gathered at Fort Lewis College on Monday to take part in the inaugural Indigenous Peoples Day.
In January, Fort Lewis College student Ruthie Edd pushed the Durango City Council to replace the second Monday of October, regarded as Columbus Day, to Indigenous Peoples Day, in what proponents say is a more accurate reflection of the history of the United States.
The push to recognize North America’s first inhabitants instead of the Italian explorer has become a nationwide movement, with towns and cities throughout the country joining the ranks, including Seattle, Minneapolis, Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
In the past several months, both Boulder and Denver elected officials voted to permanently embrace the new holiday and its message, which began in 1992 in Berkley, California. At that time, Loni Hancock, then-Mayor of Berkely, told TIME that Columbus Day was “Eurocentric and ignored the brutal realities of the colonization of indigenous peoples.”
However, a bill to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day statewide failed in the Colorado Legislature earlier this year, a foreboding sign to those who decry Columbus’s legacy and the historically harsh attitude toward Native Americans.
Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, who carried the doomed legislation, reprimanded those who voted against the new holiday on Monday, running through Columbus’s lesser-known ties to genocide and the slave trade.
“Why would we ever honor someone engaged in genocide?” Salazar said. “We need to remove this dark stain on our country. Columbus Day began here (in Colorado) in 1907, and it needs to end here today.”
Backdropped by a grand display of Native American tribe flags from across the country, speakers carried the message that the new holiday provides a place of healing.
“We’re not just here to bash Christopher Columbus,” said Kevin Belin, a member with FLC’s Diné club. “We’re doing this as a healing process for the atrocities that happened to our ancestors.”
Edd said the embracing of Indigenous Peoples Day better represents a town and college that is home to more than 1,100 Native Americans representing more than 155 tribes.
Reciting the resolution adopted by the city of Durango, Edd said:
“The Institution of Indigenous Peoples Day is a means to better express the historical events surrounding the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, (and) the subsequent 500 years of Indigenous Resistance.”
Scholars agree it’s nearly impossible to estimate the total population of the Americas before European arrival. But through murder, disease and other factors, the decline has been referred to by many as an attempted, and sometimes successful, genocide.
Those opposed to replacing Columbus Day often site an erosion of European American heritage and tradition, with some Italian Americans feeling especially slighted.
“The city is taking away my heritage and tradition as a descendant of native European-American people of the Americas, and giving it to somebody else,” Bayfield resident Colin Burhart-Wilson wrote in a letter to the editor to The Durango Herald on Jan. 11. “It is taking something I had and giving others something they didn’t ... I was robbed of part of my life and childhood.
“They could have the Indian day on another day,” Burhart-Wilson went on to suggest.
Native Americans, believed to have migrated to the Americas nearly 12,000 years ago, now claim about 56 million acres in designated reservations of the United States’ more than 2.3 billion acres of land.
“I just saw all this arguing and frustration with one another,” said Teahonna James, a FLC graduate. “And nobody gets anywhere with that. No one’s (history) is more valued than the other.”
The “other,” in this case, according to Salazar, is a history of enslavement, brutal torture, and a period of 50 years where 13 million Native Americans lost their lives.
“In 2016, Indigenous People still survive,” he said. “No matter how strong the evil is in some people’s heart, there’s still something stronger. There might be no more historic, deplorable human atrocities on a population.
“Yet we still exist.”
Edd, who told The Durango Herald after the statewide bill failed that she would never stop pushing the legislation, has even gained national media attention in her efforts.
“As we focus on the healing element of Indigenous Peoples Day,” she told CNN, “we open ourselves up to being better global citizens who are aware of the struggles and the experience of other people and groups.”