American Indians Speak Out Against 'Imperialist' Theme : Protest: They hoped to raise awareness about the suffering caused by European colonization. Traditional rituals and placard waving greet festivities.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At sunrise on New Year's Day, while many people along the Rose Parade route were still sleeping on the sidewalks, a 63-year-old chief of the Gabrielino nation stood in the center of Colorado Boulevard to lead a group of followers in a traditional Indian blessing.

Three drummers began to beat large, hand-hewn wooden drums. Dancers in Aztec costumes--feather headdress and loud leg rattles--immersed themselves in the smoke of holy incense, moving to the steady drumbeat. All joined Chief Vera Rocha in a prayer to the Great Spirit for peace and in remembrance of their ancestors.

The morning ritual--which drew a crowd of curious onlookers--culminated a nightlong vigil by American Indian and Latino activists protesting the selection of a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus as a parade grand marshal.

To all who asked, the protesters spoke angrily about Columbus and his exploration of the Americas. They argued that the theme of the parade--"Voyages of Discovery"--represented a Eurocentric perspective. The choice of Spanish aristocrat Cristobal Colon as a grand marshal, the protesters said, was an insult to all native peoples in the hemisphere.

"Saying that Columbus 'discovered' America is like saying it was an empty land and that the people who were there before weren't worth living," said Misael Bautista, 23, a native of Mexico and student at East L.A. College. Like many of the protesters, Bautista spoke proudly of his American Indian heritage, saying he counts the Totonaca and Mexica Indians among his ancestors.

Although parade officials named a second grand marshal--Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.), an American Indian--in response to the hail of criticism after Colon's appointment, the American Indian groups still felt the need to protest the Spaniard's participation.

The protest began in the darkness of the last hours of 1991. As bands of rowdy teen-agers roamed Colorado Boulevard throwing marshmallows at passing cars, about 50 people decorated with feathers or wrapped in traditional Indian blankets stood at the corner of Colorado and Garfield Avenue, waving flags and banners denouncing Columbus.

Nik Winterhawk Alexander, a Cree who wore eagle feathers and a bone and bead choker, said that "red children" who already suffer low self-esteem should not have to turn on their televisions to see the Rose Parade glorify the man who helped destroy American Indian culture.

Not far from where Alexander stood, the dancers had set up a small shrine with a marigold, five candles and a pot of sweet-smelling sage and other herbs that were slowly burned throughout the night. Next to the candles sat a turtle shell and an abalone shell, which one dancer said represented "our ancestors."

By organizing the vigil, Vera Rocha said, Indians hoped to raise awareness about the human suffering caused by Columbus' voyage and the European colonization of the Americas. As an example, Rocha cited the virtual enslavement of the Gabrielino people by Spanish missionaries.

"He came and he opened the floodgates for all kinds of tragic things," she said.

Judith Cuauhtemoc, a member of the Cuauhtemoc dance troupe that joined the protest, said that "what they (the parade organizers) are celebrating as a symbol of discovery, for the natives of the whole continent is a symbol for genocide, destruction."

But it was unclear how much of the message got across.

Some revelers walked through the group hitting their lips with their hands, imitating an Indian war cry. As they passed by, an angry protester blasted them--with Silly String.

"I only spray the ones who are ignorant," he said sheepishly. Steve Savage, 18, of Whittier listened attentively to an impassioned speech by one man, but at the end of it he said he still did not care whether Colon was grand marshal or not.

"I'm not for it and I'm not bothered by it. It's just another guy riding in a car to me," he said.

But Jose Tirado, 32, a native New Yorker who said he works at Warner Bros. studio, chanced upon the protesters and decided that he and his girlfriend should sit with them to watch the parade.

"We ran into them and I said: 'This is where I feel comfortable,' " Tirado said. Other passersby also offered words of support.

In addition to raising awareness among others, members of the Los Angeles Indigenous People's Alliance and the Alliance of Native Americans said that they hoped to heal their own wounds by speaking out and praying on the parade route.

"The Rose Parade has insulted us," Cuauhtemoc said. "When you feel pain in your heart, you pray for peace."

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