Indigenous Peoples Day is becoming more popular as a Columbus Day alternative.
Portland, Ore., and Albuquerque joined at least seven other cities last week in changing the name of the federal holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. At a state level, Alaska, Hawaii and South Dakota were ahead of the trend, not celebrating Columbus Day since it was first nationally recognized in 1937. Today, only 15 percent of private businesses and 22 states recognize Columbus Day, which is the smallest proportion for any federal holiday. Berkeley, Calif., was the first city to call the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992.
The holiday was celebrated — and condemned — in the United States throughout the 18th and 19th century, albeit for different reasons. In the 19th century, the holiday — celebrated primarily by Italians and Catholics living in the United States — faced staunch opposition by anti-immigrant groups who did not like the celebration’s association with Catholicism.
In the 1930s, an organization called the Knights of Columbus started the push for federal recognition of Columbus Day as a way to lessen the prejudices facing Italian immigrants in the United States. The Italians were a persecuted minority, and the idea was that if an Italian were recognized as an American hero, hostilities would decrease. After some intense lobbying, President Roosevelt proclaimed it a national holiday.
Tensions did not ease, however. In recent decades, Native American groups have come out against the holiday, primarily due to Columbus’s role in starting the trans-Atlantic slave trade and decimating the native population.
Still, there are those who defend it. Anna Vann, a member of the Sons of Italy’s Denver Lodge, defended Columbus Day in a statement for the Washington Post. Columbus Day is 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,” Vann said.
Ray Leno, the chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon, told The Oregonian that there is still more work to be done, but that Indigenous Peoples Day is a step in the right direction. “You can’t erase history and culture with a piece of paper and pencil,” he said. “But you can do things like this.”