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Why Columbus Day Is Controversial, and Some States Don't Celebrate It

A reveller dances during a “pow-wow” celebrating the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Festival in Randalls Island, New York, October 11, 2015. The festival is held as a counter-celebration to Columbus Day and is to promote Native American culture and history. (Photo: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — More cities are recognizing Native Americans on Columbus Day this year as they revive a movement to change the name of the holiday to celebrate the history and contributions of indigenous cultures around the country.

As the U.S. observes Columbus Day on Monday, it will also be Indigenous Peoples Day in at least nine cities for the first time this year, including Albuquerque; Portland, Oregon; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Olympia, Washington.

Encouraged by city council votes in Minneapolis and Seattle last year, Native American activists made a push in dozens of cities in recent months to get local leaders to officially recognize the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day. Their success was mixed.

The campaigns say the federal holiday honoring Christopher Columbus — and the parades and pageantry accompanying it — overlook a painful history of colonialism, enslavement, discrimination and land grabs that followed the Italian explorer’s 1492 arrival in the Americas. The indigenous holiday takes into account the history and contributions of Native Americans for a more accurate historical record, activists have argued.

Columbus Day supporters say the holiday celebrates centuries of cultural exchange between America and Europe, commemorates an iconic explorer and honors Italian-Americans, a group that has endured its own share of discrimination.

“For the Native community here, Indigenous Peoples Day means a lot. We actually have something,” said Nick Estes of Albuquerque, who is coordinating a celebration Monday after the City Council recently issued a proclamation. “We understand it’s just a proclamation, but at the same time, we also understand this is the beginning of something greater.”

Native Americans are the nation’s smallest demographic, making up about 2 percent of the U.S. population. In recent decades, a significant number of tribal members have moved from reservations to urban areas, where a large majority live today. The shift makes the cities’ resolutions and proclamations more meaningful, Estes said.

Congress set aside the second Monday of October as a federal holiday honoring Columbus in 1934. Over the years, Native Americans have slowly begun winning more recognition around the day.

South Dakota renamed Columbus Day to Native American Day in 1990, and it has been an official state holiday ever since. Berkeley, California, has observed Indigenous Peoples Day since 1992.

Parades and festivals that developed around Columbus Day have faced protests that are known for being confrontational, especially in Denver. Anna Vann, a longtime member of the Sons of Italy’s Denver Lodge, recalls protests during the 1992 parade, which marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, as the most unnerving and pivotal.

That year, protesters blocked the parade route for several hours, she said. After that, the parade wasn’t held again until 2000, and it has been difficult to make it the draw it once was, she said.

“It’s been a struggle to even get people to come and attend the parades as spectators,” Vann said. “It’s a celebration of when the Europeans came over and started their lives here. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for this history.”

The renewed push for Indigenous Peoples Day carries the sentiment of past decades’ protests against Columbus, but it has proven less confrontational, with advocates instead finding traction at City Hall.

“They really didn’t prove anything,” Rey Garduno, an Albuquerque city councilman and longtime community organizer, said of the confrontational protests. “Whatever victory people took from them, you still ended up at the end of the day in the same place or even worse.”

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Woman Finally Reunited With Nurse Who Helped Save Her Life 30 Years Earlier

For 38 years, a few black-and-white photographs of a nurse cradling a baby provided comfort to a woman who suffered terrible burns and endured years of playground taunts and painful surgeries thereafter. For all that time, until Tuesday, she dreamed of meeting her again.

The photos show Amanda Scarpinati at just 3 months old, her head thickly wrapped in gauze, resting calmly in the nurse’s arms. Shot for the Albany Medical Center’s 1977 annual report, the images have a beatific, “Madonna and Child” quality.

STORY: Mom’s Search for Nurse Who Cared for Her as a Baby Has Happy Ending

As a baby, she had rolled off a couch onto a boiling steam vaporizer. Melted mentholated ointment scalded her skin. The burns would require many reconstructive surgeries over the years.

The photos helped.

“Growing up as a child, disfigured by the burns, I was bullied and picked on, tormented,” she said. “I’d look at those pictures and talk to her, even though I didn’t know who she was. I took comfort looking at this woman who seemed so sincere, caring for me.”

Scarpinati now lives Athens, 25 miles south of Albany, and works as a human resources manager. All her life, she wanted to thank the nurse who showed her such loving care, but she didn’t even know her name.

She tried to find out 20 years ago, without success. The pictures were taken by photographer Carl Howard, but his subjects weren’t identified.

At a friend’s urging, she tried again this month, posting the photos on Facebook and pleading for help.

“Within 12 hours, it had gone viral with 5,000 shares across the country,” said Scarpinati.

She had her answer within a day: The fresh-faced young nurse with the long wavy hair was Susan Berger, then 21. Angela Leary, a fellow nurse at the medical center back then, recognized her and sent Scarpinati a message, saying Berger “was as sweet and caring as she looks in this picture.”

Preserved by the photos, their encounters in the pediatric recovery room turned out to have a lasting impact on both their lives.

“I remember her,” Berger said before they met face to face on Tuesday. “She was very peaceful. Usually when babies come out of surgery, they’re sleeping or crying. She was just so calm and trusting. It was amazing.”

Berger had been fresh out of college, and baby Amanda was one of her first patients. Now she’s nearing the end of her career, overseeing the health center at Cazenovia College in New York’s Finger Lakes region.

Both women were thrilled to see each other again Tuesday, sobbing and embracing as cameras clicked all around them in a medical center conference room.

“Oh my God, you’re real! Thank you!” Scarpinati said.

“Thank YOU!” Berger responded.

If any scars remain, Scarpinati doesn’t show them, from her long dark hair to the butterfly tattoo just above her ankle. Berger also seems youthful and upbeat, with shoulder-length blonde hair, slightly shorter than how she wore it in 1977.

“I’m over the moon to meet Sue … I never thought this day would come,” Scarpinati said.

Berger said she feels even more blessed.

“I don’t know how many nurses would be lucky enough to have something like this happen, to have someone remember you all that time,” Berger said. “I feel privileged to be the one to represent all the nurses who cared for her over the years.”

Someone asked if their reunion might be the start of a lifelong friendship.

Scarpinati had a quick answer to that: “It already has been a lifelong friendship. She just didn’t know.”

By Mary Esch, Associated Press

(Photo: Amanda Scarpinati/Facebook)

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