Drizzling rain didn’t put a damper on the enthusiasm of participants at the Indigenous Day of Remembrance in New York’s City’s Columbus Circle on Sunday, October 7. The annual gathering celebrates indigenous ancestors and traditions and is held the day prior to the federally recognized Christopher Columbus Day.
The event attracted nearly 70 people—not including the tourists in Central Park South who paused to take photographs and listen to the music and messages. Luis Ramos, the host of the fifth annual event, said the turnout was smaller than last year due to the weather, but he noted the atmosphere was intimate and heartfelt. Many attendees wore Native regalia, and the scent of burning sage wafted through the air. A strong sense of Native pride was evident in the smiling faces, the powerful singing and chanting, the loud beat of the drums and the joyful dancing. Attendees decorated a “memorial wall” with photos of deceased relatives from their families and tribes.
“Here’s a statue of Christopher Columbus,” Ramos told Indian Country Today Media Network, waving toward the center of Columbus Circle, “and there’s still a federally recognized holiday. They don’t realize the destruction still being implemented, the genocide. The aim [of the Indigenous Day of Remembrance] is not to get into the politics of it, but to remember our ancestors and honor what they did.”
Ramos—Taino with roots in Guanica and Cayey in Puerto Rico, though born in Brooklyn, New York—organized the first, unofficial gathering of its kind in 1996. He was out of the country in the early 1990s around the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival on indigenous soil when protests in New York City were strong.
“I came back in 1996 and everything was quiet,” Ramos told WKCR-radio on Sunday night. “I said, ‘We’ve got to bring this back, the spirit of honoring indigenous traditions.’ That’s when we started gathering at the circle.”
The first year, Ramos and five other people protested by the statue of Columbus. “We reclaimed it as the Indigenous Circle, and people really applauded,” he said.
Since then, support snowballed, and Ramos now holds the annual Indigenous Day of Remembrance with an official permit.
“We are here to remind the public that there is another story, another history,” said Ramos, who also leads the Shorakapok Earth Keepers, a community group honoring the legacy of the indigenous people of Manhattan (Manahata) Island, the Rechgawawanc clan of the Weekquaeskeek Tribe.
At Sunday’s celebration, Indigenous people spoke about uniting as one to strengthen their causes, such as honoring Mother Earth.
“Everyone here, we are part of the Mother Earth, and each person needs to take care of Mother Earth,” one woman implored. “You have to start your own little organic garden. Everybody needs to get into this together and share. If a person doesn’t know how to do it; you teach. Teach how to plant, teach how to grow—no modifying anything!”
Some speakers pushed for the release of imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier, who has been incarcerated since 1977 when he was found guilty of murdering two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975. Peltier’s case has been highly controversial with many supporters maintaining he is innocent and should be freed.
The poignant location of the Indigenous Day of Remembrance, across the street from a statue dedicated to Columbus, was accentuated this year by a special art exhibit entitled “Discovering Columbus.” The installation by Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi concealed the view of the statue for the first time in 120 years, but it also attracted tourists and augmented the common, mainstream misperception of Columbus as a hero who “discovered” America. Six stories above the ground, a contemporary living room—complete with tables, chairs, a couch, rug and flat-screen television—encircles the 13-foot marble figure of the explorer. Tickets to the exhibit, though free, must be reserved online or at the nearby Time Warner Center. Thirty people can enter the “living room” at one time. Viewings are sold out for the next five days. Nishi, known internationally for showcasing a city’s monuments, statues and architecture from a new and unusual perspective, told thirteen.org he chose to feature Columbus strictly for the statue’s external appearance and not for its historical significance.
On September 20, when the art exhibit opened, Ramos protested nearby, displaying his art piece entitled: “Columbus Murdered My Relatives.”
Nicolas Chango—an Inka from Salasaca, Tungurahua, Ecuador who now resides in Queens, New York—underscored the atrocities committed by Columbus and his troops, speaking at the Indigenous Day of Remembrance. “Five-hundred-and-twenty years ago, they invaded our land; they killed our people; they tried to cut the winds but they couldn’t,” Chango told the crowd. “We have come here from the south as a condor, to share with you, to smile with you.”
As Chango reminded everyone, the focus of the Indigenous Day of Remembrance is not resentment. “Here we are to tell you not to make enemies but to tell you, ‘You are our brothers and sisters,’” Chango said.
The gathering serves to strengthen the collective indigenous voice and to rise above the devastation. It is about coming together and healing.
“People have been talking about the rain as a positive experience—a purifying rain,” Ramos said. “It is chilly and damp, but there is an awareness in the air. We have really unified.”