Indigenous Peoples’ Day Vs. Columbus Day

Published October 12, 2015
Updated September 12, 2022
Indigenous Peoples Day

Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesA demonstrator marches in Boston during an Indigenous Peoples’ Day rally on Oct. 10, 2020.

For decades, the United States has celebrated Columbus Day on the second Monday in October. Businesses close, some federal employees have the day off, and there’s a general acknowledgment of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the “New World.” But there’s been a push in recent years to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead.

To Indigenous Peoples’ Day advocates, Columbus Day wrongly celebrates someone who incurred great suffering on Native Americans. The Italian explorer, they point out, enslaved Indigenous people, brutally suppressed revolts, and brought devastating diseases to the Americas.

On the other side of the issue, however, is the complicated history of Columbus Day itself. Though it’s come to largely represent Christopher Columbus and the “discovery” of the New World, the holiday actually has its roots in Italian-American persecution and pride.

Delve into the ongoing debate over Indigenous Peoples’ Day, from the surprising origins of Columbus Day, to how different states have decided to approach the issue in recent years.

The Surprising Origins Of Columbus Day

Columbus Day wasn’t enacted all at once. Rather, it took centuries for the government to declare the second Monday in October as a national holiday.

Christopher Columbus In New World

Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty ImagesA depiction of Christopher Columbus reaching the “New World.”

According to the Smithsonian, the idea to celebrate Christopher Columbus first arose more than 200 years ago. In 1792, the first documented celebration of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World took place in New York City, on the 300th anniversary of the event.

One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison formally acknowledged the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival. As NPR reports, Harrison called for a national observance of Columbus Day and linked Columbus’s legacy with American history.

“On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life,” Harrison announced.

But then, something unexpected happened. Though Harrison had made no acknowledgment of Christopher Columbus’s Italian heritage, “Columbus Day” was quickly claimed by Italian-Americans. At the time, Italian-Americans — many of whom had arrived during an influx of new immigration starting in the 1880s — faced persecution and violence from their new countrymen.

They saw the celebration of Christopher Columbus as a way to be accepted by the United States — and started to push for Columbus Day to become a national holiday. Fourteen years after Harrison’s proclamation, in 1906, Italian-Americans in Colorado successfully convinced the state to officially observe Columbus Day. Before long, other states followed.

Columbus Day Celebration In 1942

Bettmann/Getty ImagesItalian-American women celebrate Columbus Day in 1942 by holding American flags and honoring their sons in the U.S. military.

It took decades, but Columbus Day eventually became a national holiday. As the Smithsonian explains, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the first national observance of Columbus Day in 1934 after pressure from the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic organization) and Italian-Americans. Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937, and President Richard Nixon declared in 1972 that it would fall on the second Monday in October.

But though Italian-Americans had pushed for Columbus Day as a way to find acceptance in American society, the idea of celebrating Christopher Columbus didn’t sit well with many Indigenous advocates.

Inside The Push For Indigenous Peoples’ Day

For Indigenous people living in the United States, Christopher Columbus wasn’t worth celebrating. After all, as History notes, his arrival in the New World had only brought death and disease to their ancestors. Plus, Columbus hadn’t “discovered” anything — they were already there.

Anti Columbus Day Protest

University of Wisconsin Chicano students protest the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.

National Geographic reports that the pushback against Columbus Day grew starting in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1970, “Red Power” activists defaced a Christopher Columbus statue in New York on Columbus Day. And in 1977, according to the Smithsonian, the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

This idea only gained prominence as time went on. In 1990, the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre — during which American soldiers slaughtered 300 Lakota Native Americans — South Dakota declared that it would no longer celebrate Columbus Day. Instead, it would change the holiday to Native American Day.

Two years later, during the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, Indigenous activists spoke out against Columbus Day again. In response, Berkley, California, replaced Columbus Day with a holiday called “The Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People.”

Since then, other cities and states have also decided to stop celebrating Columbus Day. More and more, they’ve opted to observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead.

Is It Columbus Day Or Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

People In Crowd With Indigenous Peoples Day Shirts

David McNew/Getty ImagesSupporters of Indigenous Peoples’ Day watch a local Tongva tribal elder speak in California in 2017, shortly after the city and the county of Los Angeles approved Indigenous Peoples Day to replace Columbus Day.

Today, which states celebrate Columbus Day and which celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day? As more and more states adopt Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the second Monday in October is rapidly changing.

According to National Geographic, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is now a paid state holiday in Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon (Oregon also celebrates Columbus Day), South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin. What’s more, just 20 states — as well as American Samoa and Puerto Rico — celebrate Columbus Day today.

In 2021, President Joe Biden made history by becoming the first president to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In a proclamation released by the White House, Biden declared: “On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we honor America’s first inhabitants and the Tribal Nations that continue to thrive today. I encourage everyone to celebrate and recognize the many Indigenous communities and cultures that make up our great country.”

But not everyone is happy with the groundswell of support for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Some have pointed out that Columbus Day, at its roots, is about celebration Italian-American heritage.

“Italians are intensely offended,” Lisa Marchese of Seattle, Washington, said of the city’s push to cast aside Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, according to the Washington Post.

She said: “For decades, Italian Americans celebrated not the man, but the symbol of Columbus Day. That symbol means we honor the legacy of our ancestors who immigrated to Seattle, overcame poverty, a language barrier, and above all, discrimination.”

For now, both holidays are technically celebrated across the United States. But supporters of Indigenous Peoples’ Day are pleased with the growing acceptance of their holiday — and see it as an important acknowledgment of the suffering of their ancestors.

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 Peopless 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.”

After reading about the surprising origins of Christopher Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, look through these shocking facts about Christopher Columbus. Or, see how Viking Leif Erikson set foot in the New World five centuries before Columbus did.

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