AJ Mota had lived on the Pomo reservation his whole life before coming to UC Santa Cruz. Mota’s tribe is made up of only 100 people, but they are all his relatives by blood.
He went to elementary and high school off of the reservation in the city of Clearlake Oaks in the Napa Valley region. Although school was a bus ride away, Mota felt like he was traveling a much longer distance.
“Growing up, I felt like I lived in two different worlds,” Mota said. “I never understood what my friends would talk about because they lived in town and I lived on the rez. I used to call [the rez] an island in the middle of civilization because it’s so isolated from everybody else in the community.”
When Mota learned about Christopher Columbus Day and Thanksgiving in school, he came home to family members who told him not to take all of his school curriculum as it was given.
“I had older cousins and aunties and uncles who said, ‘That’s not the real story, that’s the white man’s words,’” Mota said. “Because I was so young they knew I wouldn’t understand the genocide and the complexity of it all. They said, ‘Don’t take everything for face value. What they tell you is not always the truth. If you want to do more digging, always ask.’”
Mota’s elders offered him information at home, but it was not until he came to UCSC that he wanted to become more acquainted with his tribe’s history and Native history in general, Mota said. After doing his own research, one of the biggest lies he felt he was told in school was the history of Columbus Day.
“Everyone’s supposed to recognize this day that a mass murder went on. You’re supposed to celebrate it just because,” Mota said. “[Columbus] made the indigenous people go find gold and if they didn’t have enough, they got limbs chopped off. They weren’t able to sustain themselves and their community by growing crops and irrigating and hunting because they were trying to survive. They were trying to find gold to pay [Columbus] so they could keep their lives.”
Columbus Day is celebrated in cities across the nation, but some have chosen to commemorate the victims of Columbus’ 1492 conquest, rather than the Italian explorer himself. Since 1992, the city of Berkeley, 75 miles from Santa Cruz, has honored its Native community by celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Berkeley’s City Council unanimously voted to replace Christopher Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day over 20 years ago “to reveal the historical truths about the invasion and the consequent genocide and environmental destruction, to organize against its continuation today, and to celebrate Indigenous resistance,” according to the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Powwow website.
Berkeley is one of only three cities in California that recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ Day, along with Santa Cruz and Sebastopol in Sonoma County. However, Santa Cruz’s observance is only a passive recognition — it does not formally recognize the holiday and keeps its city government offices open.
Santa Cruz City Council member Don Lane said he could not remember a definite date the city made the switch from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day because, to his memory, the city never made an official decision.
“There was an unspoken resolution to not elevate one or the other, but rather just de-escalate the sense of competition between the two days and back off from any kind of formal celebration of either day in terms of the city,” Lane said.
Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in the Republic of Genoa, which is now modern-day Italy. Recognizing Columbus’ conquest to the Americas, members of the Italian-American community consider Columbus Day to be an unofficial Italian-American day, Lane said.
“As Indigenous Peoples’ Day got traction there was a response of, ‘What are you doing disrespecting Columbus Day?’” Lane said. “This community has a pretty strong Italian community and there were hurt feelings on both sides. I don’t think we’ve done anything formally celebrating either holiday.”
Dr. Rebecca Rosser, director of UCSC’s American Indian Resource Center, said the city’s practice of acknowledging Indigenous Peoples’ Day but not officially celebrating it is wise.
“It’s a nice compromise,” Rosser said. “I don’t know a way that they could appease both without upsetting the other. This is kind of a fair thing to do … [Columbus] may not be a hero to everyone but he is to some, so how do we negotiate that?”
Rosser is Mescalero-Apache and half Mexican-American and has a master’s degree in American Indian studies and a doctorate in American studies. She respects the City Council’s actions of avoiding conflict, but believes the city should still have an Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“I do think having an Indigenous Day would be valuable, but do we have to replace it?” Rosser said. “That’s where my dilemma comes. We should have one. It would be good to have one. It would be a good step forward. I’m not certain it has to be in replacement of another day, that’s all.”
AJ Mota said, because Columbus’ story is already told from the colonizers’ point of view in schools, it is disrespectful to also dedicate a holiday to him. Columbus Day should be “eradicated,” he said.
“Columbus Day, now that I know more about it, is ridiculous,” Mota said. “It’s totally ridiculous. I don’t understand it. We’re celebrating a mass genocide and somebody who was a disgusting human being. What he did to the indigenous people is gross. I know it’s archaic and those times were different, but it’s not a good enough reason.”