Columbus Day carries painful cultural associations

Native Film Tackles Columbus Day Issues

Carol Berry
3/23/11

Columbus Day became an official state holiday in Colorado in 1906; nowadays, Italian-Americans clash regularly with those opposed to a parade honoring the controversial historical figure.

“Columbus Day Legacy,” a half-hour documentary about the Denver Columbus Day parade and the protests that it engenders, will begin airing on PBS March 25. It will also be screening on April 2 at the Native American Film + Video Festival taking place at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

It's likely that filmmaker Bennie Klair, Dine', will get a more sympathetic reaction from the New York crowd than he did when he showed the film in Denver in February. There, on consecutive evenings, he showed the film to Italian-Americans whom he involved in the documentary, and then to Columbus Day parade critics.

Parade supporters who saw the documentary were angry that “the Indians” got the last word, Klair said, although he pointed out that film concludes with Italian-Americans at a post-parade party while parade opponents wait for their fellow protesters to get out of jail.

The following evening, polite approval from Natives opposed to the parade gave way to stinging criticism that the film neglected to show the police brutality that had occurred against protesters. Klair's repeated, exasperated response: “The film is what it is.”

Klair added that he didn’t have footage of everything that took place at the parade, and that “PBS wanted both sides told.” For that reason, he included material about the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in southern Colorado, where striking miners and family members, many of them Italian-American, were killed by the Colorado National Guard.

He worked on the film over a period of four years, interspersing accounts of the labor struggles with archived interviews with parade critics. He filmed a local Native artist painting canvases and an elderly Italian woman showing off the peasant costume she wore in the Columbus Day parade. He caught “Columbus” on film donning his cap pre-parade and mounted Army cavalry—noted in history for Colorado’s 1864 Sand Creek Massacre—joining the festivities.

“I didn’t set out with any agenda,” he said, “just as a filmmaker looking for a good human story.”

Controversy over the Columbus Day parade has centered on Natives’ objection to the civic honoring of a man they regard as an Indian-killer and slave-trader, while proponents have touted it as an expression of Italian pride, refusing to remove references to Columbus.

Klair said he’s moving on and is not looking back. His next film, he said, will feature a Navajo road man of the Native American Church in what is likely to be a less-controversial piece.

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