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Should Philadelphia say 'Goodbye, Columbus?'

Amid a national debate over statues, a call is going up for Philadelphia to join other cities in replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, recognizing that the explorer committed unspeakable cruelties against natives.

The statue of Columbus in Marconi Plaza.
The statue of Columbus in Marconi Plaza.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

So far, no one has tried to yank the Christopher Columbus statue off its pedestal in South Philadelphia, but that doesn't mean everyone reveres the monument or the man.

Vienna Enos and Signe Espinoza-Nelson don't.

Both young women launched online petitions: one to abolish Columbus Day, the other to remove two city memorials that celebrate the Italian explorer.

With the approach of the Monday holiday, a call is going up for Philadelphia to fall in line behind the growing number of American cities and states that have axed Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day, recognizing that a man heralded as a great European adventurer committed unspeakable cruelties against native peoples.

"A killer and a slaver," said Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, who will take part in a Columbus Day discussion Monday at the Museum of the American Revolution in Old City. "Historians have shown us conclusively what a bad guy Columbus really was."

That view can hit hard — and meet resistance — in Philadelphia, a place of rich Italian culture and cuisine where the annual Columbus Day parade, scheduled for Sunday, draws thousands.

"Everyone deserves their holiday," said Barbara Ann Zippi, producer and host of TV's Ciao Bella Living Italian Style. And that includes Columbus Day, an occasion of pride for Italians, just as the Irish have St. Patrick's Day and the Germans mark Octoberfest, she said.

City Councilman Mark Squilla calls himself a proud Italian American and the parade a great event. Philadelphia, he said, can weather difficult truths: "We have to be able to speak our history, to tell the entire history, good, bad, or indifferent."

For others, the truth of Columbus is plain.

"A murderer is a murderer," said Priscilla Bell, whose Taíno ancestors were among the first to greet Columbus in the Bahamas, and were soon after enslaved and nearly exterminated. "You have this guy who was respected as a hero all these years, and it's very much a myth."

Bell is a cofounder, with Mabel Negrete, of Indigenous 215, a group of Philadelphia-area native people and supporters that will be holding a Columbus teach-in Thursday at the Philadelphia Art Museum's Perelman Building, Fairmount and Pennsylvania Avenues.

"Native history is American history," said Negrete.

This year, Columbus Day falls amid a volatile, sometimes violent national debate over who should be honored and why, centered on the removal of Confederate monuments across the country. Philadelphia already is embroiled in argument over the statue of Frank Rizzo, the polarizing former police commissioner and mayor. One person was arrested after the statue was tagged with spray paint.

New York has seen three Columbus monuments smashed or defaced in recent weeks, including a Central Park statue that had its hands marked with blood-red paint and "Hate will not be tolerated" scrawled on its base. Columbus statues in Baltimore, Houston, and San Jose, Calif., were vandalized in August and September.

Philadelphia hosts two prominent memorials. A statue was erected near Memorial Hall in 1876 as part of the city's grand Centennial Exposition, and moved to Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia in 1982. The marble figure of Columbus appears to gaze across Broad Street — his right hand on a globe, a ship's anchor at his feet.

At Penn's Landing towers a laudatory, 125-foot obelisk, raised in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage. The same year, City Council renamed part of Delaware Avenue as Columbus Boulevard.

"I know the City Council is working on the Rizzo statue, and so I'm wondering if that will open up the conversation a bit more to other monuments," said Enos, a Philadelphia artist.

Los Angeles became the latest big city to adopt Indigenous Peoples Day and drop Columbus Day, its City Council voting 14-1 in August. It joined Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, Phoenix, Albuquerque, N.M., and other cities, along with Alaska, Vermont, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota.

Many of those places have prominent native populations. Not so in Philadelphia.

Indigenous peoples number about 7,000 in the city, less than 1 percent of the population, a lasting result of tribes having been killed or forced to flee Pennsylvania. By contrast, Italian immigrants stamped a permanent mark on Philadelphia, arriving in droves at the turn of the 20th century. Today 111,952 residents claim Italian heritage, about 7 percent of the population.

City Council took a stab at creating some kind of parity in 2011, when it declared the first Saturday of October to be Indigenous Peoples Day — a resolution that was promptly ignored and forgotten.

Now, the Museum of the American Revolution has scheduled three days of programming on what it calls Indigenous Peoples Weekend, culminating in a Columbus Day panel on history's omissions and distortions.

"It reflects our institutional commitment to telling lesser-known stories," said R. Scott Stephenson, the museum's vice president of collections, exhibitions, and programming.

Generations of American schoolchildren grew up learning that in Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, discovering America and opening a new world to settlement.

President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a federal holiday in 1937, and in 1971 President Richard Nixon permanently set the observance on the second Monday in October.

But resistance has grown during the last 20 years, particularly in the West, as more native voices speak up and new discoveries rewrite old narratives.

In truth, historians note, Columbus never set foot in North America. His diaries and letters, and those of men in his expeditions, describe how he seized land, enslaved natives to dig for gold, cut off hands and heads, and sold girls as young as 9 as sex slaves.

To natives, Columbus' arrival marked the start of a consuming genocide.

As a boy, Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter was stunned when teachers said that Columbus had discovered America, knowing "we were the people here, watching the boats land on the beach." The nation's founding is bound to native peoples — the Oneida were among America's first allies in the Revolution — but the stories too often go untold, he said.

Halbritter, who serves on the Revolution Museum board, will join Gover and others on Monday's panel. The evening starts with a 6 p.m. screening of People of the Standing Stone, a documentary narrated by Kevin Costner, that shows how the Oneida fought alongside Continental Army troops. Ultimately, their land was appropriated by the federal government and by European settlers.

Many people don't know that, Halbritter said. And it's time they did.

"Native Americans have experienced the effects of immigration more pointedly than any other people in the world," he said. "We live in a generation that wants to know the truth."

At the Museum of the American Revolution: Saturday Oct. 7 and Sunday Oct. 8 at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and Monday Oct. 9 at 11 a.m., Darren Bonaparte of the Mohawk community of Ahkwesáhsne performs Wampum Chronicles, a colorful telling of native history, in the Patriots Gallery. At noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Monday Oct. 9, Oneida Nation dancers perform in the Patriots Gallery. At 6 p.m. Monday Oct. 9, a showing of People of the Standing Stone, narrated by Kevin Costner, which examines Oneida solidarity with the colonists during the American Revolution. Afterward, a panel discussion, "Our Shared History: Lifting Up Lesser-Known Stories of our Nation's Founding." Tickets to the screening and discussion are $15; members and students $5. The other events are free with museum entrance: Adults, $19; youths 6-17, $12; members, and children five and under, free.