Politics are unavoidable at Indigenous Day of Remembrance



Organizers of the Indigenous Day of Remembrance gather near Columbus Circle (from left) Tina Johnson, Maritza Feliciano-Potter and Dee Doval. Photo: Christina Shaman.

“Today is not going to be political,” said Maritza Feliciano-Potter to a crowd of approximately 25 people near Columbus Circle on October 7.

The group gathered for the Indigenous Day of Remembrance, a memorial ceremony founded to honor Native Americans, in protest of Columbus Day. Feliciano-Potter wanted all attendees to know that this year’s ceremony, the eleventh in New York, wasn’t about politics. Instead, she wanted everyone to recognize lost loved ones and “those struggling with their earthly selves,” she said.

But there was no separating the day from politics. The crowd, which included young and older people, Taino and Aztec descendants, and non-Natives, formed a circle across the street from the Christopher Columbus statue, which police guarded with barricades. Various protesters spoke calmly and, at times, emotionally about a range of topics, including clean water, the Supreme Court, Hurricane Maria and abuse by the Catholic church.

“We’re not standing in the shadow of Columbus,” Feliciano-Potter said, pointing to the statue of the controversial figure. “It’s intentional that we’re here.”

As honking cars and tour buses passed by Columbus Circle, the ceremony began. Attendees formed a circle around the altar; raising their hands towards the east in praise of the sun, west in praise of women, north in praise of ancestors, and south in praise of children, a ritual known as Four Directions. After each declaration, the group chanted “Ometeotl,” which means duality, according to Analis Lopez, who performed a ceremonial dance at the event.

Despite the emphasis on keeping the day politics-free, Feliciano-Potter said she anticipated some attendees would stray from the message.

“If not protesting Kavanaugh, I should be here,” said Alan Weber. “Things are coming to a head in this country. People of color, LGBT, and women all need to stand together, with the support of white people.” Weber, who is Caucasian, said that out of all the “oppressed and neglected groups, Native Americans stand out,” because of the stereotypes and misinformation about them.

“The main reason we’re here is to celebrate our heritage,” said Tina Johnson, one of the organizers of the event, who also had sign-up sheets to register people to vote and petitions for Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group.

As the organizers set up the ancestral altar made up of books, fruit and instruments laid out on blankets, two passersby stopped to ask Johnson what was happening. She said she was protesting Columbus “because he didn’t do anything good for us.”

John Fratta, a member of the Order Sons of Italy, a national organization for people of Italian descent, said he is trying to understand the issue that many Native Americans have with Columbus, but that he feels people are “taking a man from the 15th century and judging him by 21st century standards.”

“For them to just blame this one man for all these atrocities—what are they going to blame him for next? The Chicago fire and 9/11?”

The black and white Puerto Rican flag, laid out on the ancestral altar. Photo: Christina Shaman.

Indigenous Day of Remembrance originally started as a form of Native American resistance. Founder Luis Ramos said, in a phone interview, “I cannot continue to live knowing the statue is still here; the day is still here.” Ramos said there was hope for indigenous people last year when Mayor Bill de Blasio considered removing the statue. But with it still standing a year later, he said he knew Indigenous Day of Remembrance had to continue. The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Johnson has strong feelings that the statue hasn’t been removed, and said the city would never let the group organize directly by it. “They’re afraid we will start climbing it,” she said. “If I had an airplane, I would come by and knock his head off or splatter it with red paint to represent the blood of indigenous peoples.”

Fratta said that vandalizing statues of Columbus should be considered a hate crime against Italian Americans, adding that the push to get rid of Columbus Day is more “out of bigotry than out of support for indigenous people.”

Another organizer, Dee Doval, said the group was not protesting the rights of Italians to celebrate their culture, but asking that people also accept indigenous history.

Feliciano-Potter said the group purposely chose to have the event on the Sunday before Columbus Day, rather than Monday, because they did not want to give people the opportunity to heckle them. In previous ceremonies, people would mock the group or start debates about Columbus while they were trying to speak, she said.

Toward the end of the event, a man approached the ceremonial altar, and pulled out a black and white Puerto Rican flag, laying it on the ground.

“Do you know what this flag means?” Myra Rosa, who lost her grandmother in Hurricane Maria, asked. “It means resistance.” Another protester, referred to as Cleopatra, is a member of the two-spirit indigenous community, a term used to describe Native Americans who have a third gender ceremonial role in their cultures. Cleopatra asked for a moment of silence for the “trans and queer folks who passed away last month.”

Kirk Balay, who attended the event, spoke about his personal trauma, saying he was molested and abused by priests in the Catholic church. “I don’t always talk about this,” he said. But, “being in this particular location, the pain of what happened to my ancestors was real, because it happened to me, in this day and age.”

“May I take your hand?” Feliciano-Potter asked Balay. “This is why we do this.”