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Los Angeles celebrates inaugural Indigenous Peoples Day

Los Angeles celebrates inaugural Indigenous Peoples Day
Ellie Morales Recalde, 5, with her mom, Mona Morales Recalde, attend the sunrise ceremony at North Main and 1st streets in downtown Los Angeles for the first celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Christopher Columbus was the guest of dishonor at this party.

Away from the revelers, a statue of the famous explorer was kept hidden behind a black box in downtown Los Angeles’ Grand Park, decorated with an altar celebrating native people.

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Monday marked the first celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day in Los Angeles, a year after the City Council and the county Board of Supervisors voted to reimagine Columbus Day.

The covered statue included a note signed by several county organizations indicating the monument will be removed.

“As the City Council member who works with the county supervisor, take my word for it: The statue is on its way out,” said Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who is of Native American descent and pushed the Los Angeles City Council last year to rename Columbus Day.

Across the street from the main festivities of the daylong celebration, Soraya Medina, whose ancestors are part of the Caribbean’s Taino tribe, helped assemble the altar. She stood by the Columbus statue, talking to people about the demonstration as they passed by.

Medina said the statue has been in the park for decades and is a shameful reminder of the European push into the Americas that resulted in the enslavement and death of millions of indigenous people.

“It was a mistake. It was money. It was greed,” she said of the exploration. “Imagine we had a history where we would have kept our wealth? The statue is a monument to genocide.”

With the new holiday and the eventual removal of the Columbus statue, Medina said everyday people will now be exposed to the history and culture that schools have long neglected to teach.

L.A. City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell holds the ceremonial running staff to start the 5K run in downtown Los Angeles for the first celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day.
L.A. City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell holds the ceremonial running staff to start the 5K run in downtown Los Angeles for the first celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Last year’s City Council debate to rebrand the holiday pitted O’Farrell, a member of the Wyandotte Nation tribe in Oklahoma, against Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is of Italian heritage. Opponents of the change had argued that celebrating indigenous people should not come at the expense of Italian Americans, who consider Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean a significant marker of their heritage.

O’Farrell said renaming the holiday would give “restorative justice” to indigenous people and right a “historical wrong.”

As for the statue of Columbus in Grand Park, several county groups — including the Native American Indian Commission, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission — are pushing for its removal.

Kristin Sakoda, executive director of the county’s arts commission, said the decision to move the statue was solidified in the last few months, and the three groups are in talks about what will become of it. The county is expected to approve funding the removal of the artwork in the next few months, and Sakoda said it likely will be taken down sometime early next year.

In November, as part of Native American Heritage Month, a temporary art installation will be displayed where the current statue sits.

“I would urge for people to do some research and realize that replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day and removing all symbols of oppression and hatred is probably good for all societies, not just indigenous America,” O’Farrell said of those who may oppose removing Columbus’ marker.

UC Riverside student Katianna Warren, right, laughs with Miztlayolxochitl Aguilera, a student at Cal State Long Beach, during festivities kicking off Indigenous People Day.
UC Riverside student Katianna Warren, right, laughs with Miztlayolxochitl Aguilera, a student at Cal State Long Beach, during festivities kicking off Indigenous People Day. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The daylong festivities, which were slated to include performances by the Black Eyed Peas and Native American rock group Redbone, included a sunrise ceremony, a 5K run and a Native American powwow.

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Addressing a few hundred people from the stage at the foot of City Hall, O’Farrell said Los Angeles is the largest city to adopt Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day. Cities both big and small — from Detroit to Boise, Idaho — have followed suit.

Native American actor Jacob Pratt, who emceed the event, introduced the Procession of Nations, calling on members of tribes from across the globe, some from the Tongva tribe who inhabited the land where Los Angeles sits today.

“Today, we celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day as a day of remembrance honoring the resilient spirit of Native Americans,” county Supervisor Hilda Solis said in a statement. “While we cannot change the past, we can reflect and recall the pain millions suffered throughout our nation’s history.”

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