Thirty years before FDR made it a federal holiday, Colorado decided a celebration of Christopher Columbus was in order.
Bennie Klain’s 34-minute film, “Columbus Day Legacy” picks up 100 years after that, during the charged runup to the 2007 Denver Columbus Day Parade.
For years, Native Americans and their supporters have protested the parade for reasons best summed up in the first few minutes of the film by one of those leading the fight: “Why is there a holiday to an Indian-killing slave-trader?”
They put a stop to the event in ’92, before George Vendegnia of the new generation of Sons of Italy promised his dying father he’d bring it back. And he did, kicking it off again in 2000.
Before and since, Vendegnia and his fellow Italian Americans have maintained the parade is a hard-fought celebration of their heritage and history. And besides, says Vendegnia, “It’s two hours once a year. What’s the big deal?”
Klain, a Navajo, gives near-equal time to the players on each side in this doc, with pointed care given to both Alistaire Payne, a soft-spoken artist raising an exhibit that explores “Columbucide,” and Mickie Lava Cayton, a member of every Italian organization in the Denver area and surely a decent maker of Sunday gravy. Both make their cases convincingly and with no small amount of charm.
But what’s clear here and with any other Columbus Day parade is that it’s not about Columbus. It’s the Italian equivalent to the St. Pat’s parade for us micks. It’s about the getups and the food and the “community.” At its heart, it’s about being Italian, pure and simple.
So, those on the other side argue, call it Italian-American Day. Take Columbus out, since any history beyond sailing the blue in 1492 shows ol’ Chris was a tricky SOB, saved by the natives he found so pleasant, only to kidnap them, take them to Spain and turn them into Christians, among many other indignities.
But in Denver, Columbus isn’t even the worst of it. The Third Colorado Calvary is.
Reenactors of that unit have, in the past, led the parade on horses and in uniforms reminiscent of those worn during the late 1800s. They still have a spot, if they want it, each year. The “big deal,” to use Vendegnia’s words from the movie, is the Third Colorado Cavalry is responsible for the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Eastern Colorado, where 133 Indians were brutally killed, 105 of them women and children.
In “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” a respected historical account of that battle by Dee Brown details how the militia butchered a pregnant woman, cutting out her unborn child to lay next to her in the dust. A 5-year-old girl sent out with a white flag was shot on the spot. In a public speech in Denver not long before the massacre, Col. John Chivington, commander of that cavalry, advocated killing all Indians, even infants, because “nits make lice.”
The massacre at Sand Creek makes My Lai look tame. So, why in the name of all that is 2011, are we celebrating its perpetrators? This film doesn’t answer that. But it doesn’t purport to.
The parade after all, has become sort-of comfortable, even for those blocking it with red paint on the street and kid-size dolls lolling around the bloody mess.
“Everybody feeds off this,” says one protester, an Italian American who doesn’t believe celebrating his heritage should come at the cost of people who were here first and have suffered enough. When the parade rolls around each year, he says, “everybody starts to function as if this is its own organism.”
In other words, the parade must go on, at least for another year.
The world premiere of “Columbus Day Legacy” will screen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival on Saturday, Feb. 12, at 2 p.m. at the Wilma Theater. The filmmaker will be in attendance.
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