It was 25 years ago this week that what today has become Indigenous Peoples’ Day in many cities, now including Los Angeles City and County, first gained a toehold in the cultural consciousness of the country. And, believe it or not, it was the Tournament of Roses Association that helped move that process forward — inadvertently setting the stage for today’s events.
On Oct. 3, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to celebrate the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day beginning no later than 2019. The board’s action, which makes Indigenous Peoples’ Day an official county holiday, also designates Oct. 12 as Italian American Heritage Day.
On Aug. 30, the Los Angeles City Council also agreed to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, joining a growing list of cities around the country that have done the same.
Even in places like Berkeley, which became the first American city to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, such a thing was once unthinkable until 1992.
The year before that happened, former Tournament of Roses President Bob Cheney did what all other TofR presidents before him had done; he picked a theme for the Jan. 1, 1992 annual floral extravaganza. And with 1992 being the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America, Cheney, apparently oblivious to how the rest of the world had come to regard Columbus, chose “Voyages of Discovery” as the theme. In October 1991, Cheney announced the selection of Cristóbal Colón, a Spanish duke and a descendant of Columbus, as grand marshal.
To say this did not sit well with Rick Cole, a member of the City Council, which back then was known as the Board of City Directors, is putting it mildly. Cole was so angry that he made public a letter that he had fired off to the TofR, which claimed the tournament was “an organization totally controlled by aging white men.” Cole further blasted the tournament for its “extreme myopia” for selecting a man whose ancestor was “a symbol of greed, slavery, rape and genocide,” according to a report in the LA Times, which picked up the story after I broke it in the Pasadena Star-News.
Also immediately after that announcement, the tournament started taking heat from black, Latino and Native American activists. Vera Rocha, chief of the Gabrieliño Tribe, responded to Cheney’s choice much the same way Cole did.
“Columbus did not discover America,” said Rocha. “We were already here, but wherever [Columbus] set foot, his men spoiled the land and disgraced our people.”
As a reporter for the Star-News back then, I covered not only the immediate reaction to the choice of Colón as grand marshal, but the community fallout from Cheney’s decision. I also interviewed Colón, who in spite of threats made against him maintained his composure throughout what ultimately became a community discussion that fall and winter on not only Columbus, but race relations and the tournament’s actual role in civic affairs. It seemed as though each week leading up to the parade was filled with news about some public hearing or another or a heavily attended protest outside of Tournament House on South Orange Grove Boulevard.
“Even the Pasadena City Council inserted itself, holding a public hearing a couple of weeks in advance of the parade so people could speak their minds in a public forum,” said former city Public Information Officer Ann Erdman. “I remember the council chamber was packed to standing room only, and we easily had upwards of 100 people in overflow out in the corridor.”
Although there were threats of violence, and police went on extra-high alert, nothing out of the ordinary happened. The selection of former Colorado Congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell to serve as co-grand marshal had a lot to do with calming things down.
As Herman J. Viola writes in his 2002 biography of Campbell titled “Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior,” “For too long tournament leaders had exercised undue influence on city affairs, voiced one critic. ‘They throw their weight around and get what they want.’ Not this time. The cozy, insulated world of the Tournament of Roses was being profoundly shaken.”
But, as Erdman recalls, “Throughout the big dustup over this controversy, from start to finish, two people remained calm, gracious and gentlemanly: Cristóbal Colón and Ben Nighthorse Campbell.”
While the TofR opened up its membership to more women and people of color, the city itself never really embraced the idea of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Even though I recall Rocha and Cole, who now serves as city manager of Santa Monica, later joining with other activists at a ceremony at City Hall commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day the following year, Pasadena never went as far as its spiritual sister city to the north in making it an actual holiday.
As the saying goes, better late than never. If history teaches us anything, it’s that there’s no time like the present to correct mistakes of the past, as both the LA City Council and county Board of Supervisors have tried to do.