Friday, October 10, 2003 - Christopher Columbus is a hero. A daring figure who stared down critics to find a new trade route across a perilous sea.
Or he is a murderous monster. A beast who slashed through the native people of the Caribbean like Genghis Khan through Asia.
Saundra Grays sees him differently: as an excuse for a holiday.
"I don't care whose birthday it is, as long as they're giving me a day off from work," said Grays, a recent transplant from Washington, D.C., enjoying a beer after work this week in a Denver bar.
Cities large and small across the country are preparing today for what has become an annual weekend of protest and party by groups who see Columbus in the context of either genocide or genuflection.
But no festivities are traditionally as heavily protested as those in Colorado - the birthplace of the celebration and vilification of Columbus.
It begins today in Denver, with what is billed as a peaceful Four Directions All Nations March to downtown. On Saturday, a protest march will precede the annual Columbus Day parade to take place near Coors Field.
The protests center on the belief of Indians and their allies that Columbus Day should be abolished. The legacy he left, they say, has ravaged countless cultures in the Americas. And worse, that history has been "sugarcoated," according to Glenn Morris of Colorado's American Indian Movement, who spoke to the City Club of Denver this week.
He held aloft a children's book on Columbus published in 1999 that shows a picture of happy Indians greeting the explorer.
"It's a day at the beach," Morris said. "It's a party. And then you compare that to the accounts of eyewitnesses. Millions of people were killed under the supervision of Columbus."
But Italian-American groups call Columbus a hero and a symbol for their culture.
In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Oct. 12 Columbus Day. President Richard Nixon later declared Columbus Day a national holiday to be observed the second Monday of each October.
"My education teaches specifically of a man named Christopher Columbus, who, at a time when most people believed the world to be flat, he believed the world to be round," said parade backer Gary Gambino at the same City Club event.
He was an adventurer, a discoverer, Gambino said, and "is worthy of admiration." He said such a journey taken in the 1400s is akin to space travel today. "The adversities he had to overcome were staggering."
Backers of Columbus Day also argue that the often-quoted eyewitness accounts of Columbus' atrocities were penned by one of his enemies. And, Gambino said, Columbus may not have been perfect, but he did not invent rape, murder and thievery.
"No culture has ever been exempt," he said.
The arguments aside, to many in Denver the controversy over Denver's Columbus Day parade has been seen as squabbling between interest groups: offended Native Americans who annually square off with Italian-Americans who insist on holding Columbus up as a hero.
Residents such as Grays simply do not see the issue as a big deal. In fact, most view Columbus in a good way.
A survey of 500 Denver residents conducted this week showed 73 percent with a favorable view of Columbus. Twenty percent viewed Columbus unfavorably, 6 percent were unsure and 1 percent had no idea who he was, according to 9News Survey USA.
"The fighting isn't great, but the yawning is worse than the fighting," said Patricia Limerick, faculty director of the Center of the American West.
Limerick has been championing a better understanding of Columbus and his legacy. She fears that Columbus Day means too little to too many.
"Look at what Memorial Day is about now," she said. "It's become about barbecues, which hardly gets at the goal of thinking about war and its consequences. That's hardly the outcome we want for Columbus Day."
Not caring about Columbus Day also belies a small but powerful movement spurred by Native Americans and other groups to radically change the holiday.
One effort that is gaining momentum wants the federal government and all the states to stop using taxpayer money to pay for the Columbus Day holiday.
Far-fetched? Maybe not, according to some Western experts who point to a series of successes won throughout the United States.
In South Dakota, a group of bipartisan legislators led by a Republican governor renamed Columbus Day as Native American Day in 1990.
In all, 17 states have dropped Columbus Day as a state paid holiday, according to United Native America.
Limerick also said that in Denver, with few people caring, it is unlikely the schism between two ethnic groups that view something in a very different ways can be healed.
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper met Monday with parade organizers and those who are planning to protest the parade.
Like his predecessor, he was unable to bring the two sides together.
In 1992, Mayor Wellington Webb, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell met with parade organizers and protesters, with no resolution. Parade organizers canceled the parade that year, opting instead for a rally on the steps of the state Capitol.
In 2000, Italian-American groups restarted the parade, and the controversy has been just as fierce.
So far, parade organizers have rejected a request to rename the event an Italian heritage parade, saying they are allowed to name it anything they like under the First Amendment.
Russell Means, a founder of the American Indian Movement, said he and an American Indian elder are going to approach the Columbus Day parade leaders just as they start the 2 p.m. Saturday march. Means will ask the parade organizers to change the name "one last time."
Can a compromise be reached, given the mix of two passionate ethnic groups, and a vast majority of residents who may not care or know that much about the issue?
"I don't know, honestly," said South Dakota state Sen. Ed Olson, who proposed the legislation changing the holiday's name in that state. "It is worthy of a continued effort. Without dialogue, there will never be answers."