Bury My Heart — The Columbus Day Parade Trials

I was fortunate to be one of a team of generous lawyers who defended scores of courageous Native American men and women, and others in sympathy with them, who decided the 100th Columbus Day Parade in Denver was 100 parades too many.

These people felt there was nothing honorable about how Columbus treated the Indians he encountered, and so he should not be honored every year in this way. On the day of the parade, they sat down in the streets where the parade was to pass.

These were the opening remarks I prepared for the trial of two of them.

Colorado was the first to make Columbus Day a legal holiday, in 1907. Our state has celebrated the explorer’s achievements for a hundred years.

But why do Indians, year after year now, for at least 20 years here in Denver, bang on their drums, raise their voices in chant and song, and sometimes sit down in the street, and say Columbus was a bad guy?

Columbus was a great guy. He had the courage to sail an ocean most people thought was flat and he’d fall off somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He discovered America. True, he discovered about eight million other people had discovered it first. But that’s okay. He didn’t know that, and these eight million other people looked…really different.

So what’s the problem? Why do these Indians bang their drums, sing songs of mourning, sit in the street on a great day celebrating a great man?

Let’s ask Columbus…what did he think of these people, who now protest the parade that honors him?

When you first met these people, these Indians, what was your impression?

“They do not bear arms, and do not know them. They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

What promise did you make regarding these people to your King and Queen?

“As many slaves as they ask. Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

He sold them, and he killed them. Within two years of his historic landing in the Americas, by murder, mutilation, and suicide rather than slavery, half of the 250,000 Indians Columbus encountered were dead. By 1515, there were 50,000 left. By 1550, only 500.

But that was then, and this is now.

Last October 6, we celebrated the 100th Columbus Day Parade in Denver. For many of us, it was a celebration of this great man, Columbus. For many of us, including Teresa Lilly and Adrienne Tsikewa, the people you judge today, it was a day of mourning, one of 100 days of mourning to be endured, year after year after year.

And so they came to this 100th parade, not to celebrate this great man Columbus, but to bear witness to their pain. The pain of centuries, passed on to their young lives through the oral and written histories of their parents, grandparents, and ancestors. Pain made fresh every year, by this celebration of this great, and terrible, man.

You’ll hear today that the parade organizers originally intended, and made it known, that they would lead the parade with a cavalry contingent, an in-your-face celebration of the armed force that decimated the Indians. Even the National Football League penalizes players who celebrate the defeat of their opponent. And the Indian people are not our opponents. They are not our enemy. Teresa Lilly and Adrienne Tsikewa are not our enemy.

I don’t think the Denver police consider the Indians our enemy. In fact you’ll hear today that the police this year, as in many years past, made special efforts to help the Indians make their point about Columbus. The police didn’t tell the Indians to clear the street, or they would be arrested. The police cleared the streets for them, blocked off traffic so they could march, walked with them in escort.

Then, at a certain point, the police said, this is as far as you go. Police, not the protestors, blocked off the street, erected yellow tape that said do not pass. And the protestors, some of them, sat down, under the eyes of the police, who did not tell them they could not sit down.

The prosecutor will tell you that Adrienne Tsikewa was one of the people who was kindly helped by the police on the peaceful Four Directions march, to where she sat down at 15th and Stout. They won’t tell you that she could not possibly have known that she was blocking a parade, because at that point the parade wasn’t anywhere near 15th and Stout. It was half a mile away, and remained a half-mile away until police decided to clear the street.

The prosecutor won’t tell you that Teresa Lilly, who joined the protestors after they had stopped at 15th and Stout, could not possibly have known that she was blocking the parade. She came upon a peaceful protest, the police had blocked off the area, and the parade was nowhere in sight. Even Columbus couldn’t have cried “Land Ho” in such a situation.

The prosecutor also won’t tell you that neither Teresa Lilly nor Adrienne Tsikewa could possibly hear police warnings to clear the street, when police finally did decide to clear the street. There was so much noise, from the drumming, from the chanting, from the singing, and from non-Indian bystanders who came to jeer the parade, that the only person who could clearly hear the warnings was the police captain with mouth to megaphone.

No police officer clearly told Teresa Lilly to move or she would be arrested. No police officer clearly told Adrienne Tsikewa to move or she would be arrested.

These young women didn’t go to the Columbus Day Parade. They didn’t get near the Columbus Day Parade. They went to the Indian parade organized to protest what they believe is an unlawful gathering of people to intimidate a conquered people by celebrating the man and the policies that made them slaves, raped and murdered, stole their lands, and robbed generations of Indian children of hope and heritage.

These are those Indian children. Grown now, and putting their safety and freedom on the line for the next generation of Indian children.

They believe their federal government protects them from a celebration of aggression and domination. And their federal government does: it is a crime, under United States Code (18 USC 241) to conspire to oppress or intimidate anyone. They feel oppressed; they feel intimidated.

They believe their state government protects them from a celebration of aggression and domination. And their state government does: it is a crime, under Colorado law (18-9-121 CRS) to intentionally intimidate or harass someone because of their race, and cause emotional damage. They feel harassed by this parade; they feel emotionally attacked.

They feel this is hate speech, and hate speech is not protected by the Constitution. The prosecution wants you to believe this is a First Amendment issue. But not all speech is protected. Your boss can’t tell you, you’ve got a great ass. You can’t hang a sign on your store, “Whites Only.” You cannot yell to a crowd, “Kill the Indian.” Yet this parade screams, “Kill the Indian.”

And so Teresa Lilly and Adrienne Tsikewa came to the Indian march, and sat down in protest of the Columbus Day Parade.

At the end of this trial we’re going to ask you to stand up and say, based on the evidence you see and hear, that these two women violated no law, that these two women are not guilty.

Teresa and Adrienne were indeed found not guilty of all but the least serious of the charges against them. They were not guilty of resisting arrest, not guilty of obstructing a parade. Because the women admitted to sitting in the street, the jurors, tears in their eyes, said they had no choice but to find them guilty of that.

The women told the judge that rather than pay a fine, they would go to jail on their principles. The judge replied that would not be necessary, because he would impose no fines. He sentenced them to community service only, for the Indian organization of their choice.

That day, at least, and at last, the Indians defeated Columbus.