March 15, 2019

Lawmakers pass bill to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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Matthew Reichbach

Goodbye, Christopher Columbus.

New Mexico may observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead.

The Senate voted 22-15 Friday to send Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham a bill that would rename the holiday commemorating the Italian explorer.

The legislation comes as the holiday that took off in the late 19th century as a celebration of Italian-American heritage has in recent decades spurred debate over the real legacy of a man who represents the beginning of European colonialism in the Americas and how best to tell a fuller story of the continent’s history.

“I see this as a reconciliation process, not only as New Mexicans but as Americans,” said Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo.

While cities across the state, including Santa Fe, already have relabeled the annual holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, House Bill 11 still stirred plenty of emotional debate on the Senate floor Friday.

“I think this bill is more about dividing us than bringing us together,” said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, proposed changing the day to Immigrant and Indigenous Peoples’ Day — an idea the Senate rejected.

Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, proposed creating a separate holiday in February to celebrate the state’s Native American communities. The Senate voted that idea down, too.

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, then launched into a lengthy speech about Columbus’ journey to the Americas in 1492, the country’s history of immigration and the very concept of ethnic identity.

While acknowledging Columbus was “not perfect,” Sharer described him as “the first step to all the great things we have today.”

“To the victor goes the spoils,” Shendo told his colleagues. “But we are still here today.”

It is time, he argued, that Americans recognize the history of indigenous people.

Others argued the bill was only appropriate for a state like New Mexico. After all, Columbus may mean little to much of the state, where about 2 percent of the population identifies as Italian-American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But about 9 percent of New Mexicans are Native American.

“I think this is quite fitting for New Mexico,” said Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque.

At least four states already have renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day.