D E N V E R, Oct. 7, 2000 -- More than 500 American Indian activists lined city streets today in a peaceful protest against references to the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus during an Italian pride parade, the city’s first since 1991.
The activists say Columbus, a navigator from Genoa, Italy, credited with discovering the New World in 1492, was a slave trader who committed genocide against their ancestors.
To make their point, they poured a line of red liquid across the parade route to represent their ancestors’ blood.
“Columbus symbolizes the genocide of almost an entire race of people and I think its time people stand up against him,” said Owen McGaff, a Plains Indian.
To accommodate protesters, police cut down a section of a fence put up earlier in the morning to block protests, and permitted protestors to stand in spots along the street being used for the parade.
Later they asked activists whether they preferred to leave or face arrest, and took into custody those who asked to be arrested. Following the arrests the parade continued without incident.
Police arrested 147 people on misdemeanor charges, including loitering and failure to obey lawful orders, but there was no violence and no one resisted arrest, police spokeswoman Mary Thomas said.
‘Sitting Bull Would be Proud’
Many activists said Columbus has drawn so much attention and controversy largely because he has a holiday named after him. Columbus Day has been a national holiday since 1971. It takes place on the second Monday of every October.
Activists carried signs with slogans such as “Sitting Bull would be proud of us” and “1492: disgrace called discovery.”
“They were selfish and took everything we had our land, our food, and they poisoned us with small pox. Why do people have to treat Columbus like a god?” said Chuntay Her Many Horses, a pre-law student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “We don’t have our own day and we were here first.”
Some wore the traditional clothing and headdress of their tribes. Rows of men and women beat small tom toms in rhythm with their anti-Columbus chanting. Most of the activists came from Indian tribes from Colorado, Oklahoma and Wyoming.
Clashes among protesters and Italian-Americans during the city’s1991 parade had forced the annual parade to be cancelled until this year.
Italian-Americans and the activists had reached an agreement to avoid any mention of Columbus during the parade and stick to other themes of Italian pride, but several representatives of the Italian community later disavowed the deal.
“It was a total success,” said parade organizer George Vendegnia. “We had our parade and they had their protest and nobody got hurt. We got our heritage back after nine years.”
Among the 147 people arrested was American Indian Movement activist Russell Means, who said the protesters would ask for individual jury trials. The charges can bring penalties of up to a year in jail.
“We broke no law today,” said fellow AIM activist Glenn Morris.
In 1989, Means and three others were arrested after throwing fake blood on a statue of Columbus. The next year, protesters shouted anti-Columbus slogans during the parade.
The 1992 parade was canceled moments before it was set to start because of concerns about violence.
The Indian and Italian groups did agree to meet next week to avoid similar controversy next year.
ABCNEWS’ Steve Walsh in Denver and The Associated Press contributed to this report.