Christopher Columbus is traditionally credited with discovering America, to the point where he was given his own federal holiday in 1934. Since 1990, indigenous people have held protests of Columbus Day celebrations, because to many, Columbus was less an explorer than a conqueror. And, in recent years, it has been more and more widely recognized that Columbus was far from the first person to find the Americas, nor did he even land on the American continent.
On October 12, the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) organized just such a protest, the first in what they hope will be an annual series, near the Santa Barbara Bicentennial Friendship Fountain (better known as the Dolphin Fountain) in front of Stearns Wharf. Protestors carried signs-ranging from the brief “Happy Indigenous People’s Day” to the longer “Expose a corrupt educational, legal & political system that refuses to discuss the destruction of MILLIONS of Natives at the hands of Columbus” written on a gallows with an effigy of Columbus hanging from the noose-while a group of drummers played traditional Native American chants.
A series of speakers talked about issues facing indigenous people in America and around the world. Roberta Weighill, who is Chumash, said “It’s time to get rid of the celebration of Columbus. We need to pressure businesses and government to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead.” Rudy Villalobos, a member of the Brown Berets, spoke about the need for action and unity rather than talk. “We need to be able to stand up for ourselves before we can stand up to our oppressors:Prayer without action can only go so far.” Graywolf, another speaker, said, “Some people say we need to forgive and forget. But in order to forgive and forget something, it has to end. Well, we still have 10 times the average of suicides, gang violence, poverty, and alcoholism. The genocide hasn’t ended.” Cruzito Cruz, a candidate for Santa Barbara City Council, also spoke about the importance of Native American representation. “We can help by educating people and combating racism and racial profiling.”
Although strong words were used by many of the speakers, the tone of the rally was never harsh. As Villalobos said, “We must not be driven by hate or racism. We are all one race.” The protest opened and closed with a Native American prayer, and, between speakers, a dance troupe performed several traditional Native American dances that attracted a few onlookers including a tourist, identifying herself as Regina, who commented that there is an active branch of A.I.M in her home country of Switzerland. Though she was only vaguely aware of Columbus Day, “I understand why they protest.”