A few years ago, walking though the immutable Taos Pueblo, I came across a bumper sticker on an 800-year-old adobe wall that kind of put the land we are privileged to call home in fresh perspective.
“1492-1992: 500 years of tourism” it said.
It reminded me how old this country really is, that Santa Fe was here long before Plymouth, that there is a very long, sometimes hidden history that nevertheless shapes us dwellers of the West. And to know and honor that complete history, I think, is to better know who we are now. To know where we’ve truly been is essential to figuring out where we’re going.
I remembered that bumper sticker when I heard that the state Legislature is contemplating a plan to do away with Columbus Day.
I assume this is because, for many Native Americans, Columbus Day celebrates the European expansion that led to the extermination of much of their culture.
But weirdly, the state isn’t thinking of replacing Columbus Day with a day that honors the cultural contributions of Native Americans to Colorado’s history instead.
House Bill 1031 is sponsored by Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Denver/Adams County. Colorado Politics reporter Marianne Goodland tells us it's Benavidez's third try at striking Columbus Day as a state legal holiday.
In 2018, she tried to make Election Day a state holiday and get rid of Columbus Day. In 2019, Benavidez wanted Colorado Day, traditionally Aug. 1, named the state legal holiday instead of Columbus.
Last week, she sought to have Columbus Day renamed in honor of Frances X. Cabrini, also known as Mother Cabrini, an Italian native who came to Colorado in 1901 and operated the Queen of Heaven orphanage in Denver as well as a summer camp for girls on Lookout Mountain near Golden that is now the home of the Mother Cabrini Shrine.
That idea has passed out of committee and is now headed for the House floor for a vote.
If the Legislature is determined to replace Columbus Day, why not consider the obvious: Native American Day? It’s rather astonishing that we don’t already have a national day to honor the first Americans in this country, given that 500 some tribes have lived here for hundreds of years before Europeans did.
It’s even more astonishing that Colorado doesn’t have some sort of day to recognize the first Americans, since so much of their history is rooted right here.
This is the land of Mesa Verde, the native home of the Ute Mountain Utes and Southern Utes, the site of the Sand Creek Massacre. In addition to the Utes, the original inhabitants of the area that is now Colorado include the Apache, the Arapaho, the Cheyenne, the Pueblo tribes, and the Shoshone. Other tribes whose territory sometimes extended into Colorado included the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Navajo.
And Native Americans are still very much a presence in Colorado’s present.
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in the southwest corner of the state occupies 575,000 contiguous acres, which span into New Mexico and Utah.
The Southern Ute control a checkerboard reservation of 307,838 acres south and east of Durango.
Colorado would be far from the first state to declare a Native American day.
Native American Day is a holiday already celebrated in five states across the United States in lieu of Columbus Day.
In 1968, Gov. Ronald Reagan of California signed a resolution calling for a holiday called American Indian Day, to be held the fourth Friday in September. In 1998, the California Assembly declared Native American Day as an official state holiday.
Nevada also celebrates Native America Day on the fourth Friday of September, while in South Dakota and Wisconsin, it falls on the second Monday of October. The state of Tennessee observes a similar American Indian Day each year on the fourth Monday of September.
Many cities in Colorado have already forged ahead and done what the state hasn’t, passing ordinances declaring their own Indigenous People’s day —Denver, Durango and Boulder.
Other cities around the country have declared Indigenous People’s days as well. And some of these are celebrated in conjunction with Columbus Day.
No matter how we feel about Columbus Day, it’s time for Colorado to pay proper respect to the history of its first people, and shine a better light on some of the earliest Coloradans who have been misrepresented in our history books. By doing so, we might bring some of our own hidden history out of hiding, and recognize a whole different set of American founders that have been far too long forgotten.
When the Native American Museum opened in Washington, DC, a few years ago, over 500 tribes sent representatives from as far away as Alaska to march in a huge parade right down Constitution Avenue to mark the opening. I went down and they let me and my young children and thousands of other Washingtonians walk with them, and I gotta tell you, being part of that rich, colorful pageant of pride and dancing and drumming and living history made me feel more deeply American than ever.