The History of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Where It Stands Today

October 10 marks Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which is a time to celebrate the histories, perspectives and cultures of Indigenous peoples and their ancestors who live in North America. 

While some still recognize the day as Columbus Day, President Biden declared Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a national holiday in 2021 to be celebrated in place of or alongside Columbus Day. 

In his proclamation, Biden acknowledged the death and destruction wrought on Native American communities after Columbus and other European explorers came to America in 1492. 

“Today, we acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities,” he wrote in his 2021 proclamation. “It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.”

The History of Indigenous Peoples’ Day

The idea of celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day was introduced at a United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in 1977. 

South Dakota was actually the first state to do away with Columbus Day and instead replaced it with Native American Day in 1990 when Native American publisher Tim Giago called the Gov. of South Dakota to declare 1990 as the “Year of Reconciliation” between whites and Native Americans. The proposal was voted on unanimously by lawmakers in the state. 

The first city to officially celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day was Berkeley, California, in 1992. The decision to celebrate it coincided with the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. 

While Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not a federal holiday and is a national holiday, many states and cities celebrate it in some form. States that celebrate it under a different name include: 

  • Alabama (American Heritage Day)
  • Alaska, California and Hawaii (Discoverers’ Day)
  • Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota (Native Americans’ Day)
  • Texas (Indigenous Peoples’ Week)

States Fighting to Officially Change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day

While there are no plans as of now to declare Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a federal observance in place of Columbus Day, several states are working to officially recognize the day in place of Columbus Day within their communities and some have already done so. 

In 2019 and 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared Indigenous Peoples’ Day as the second Monday in October in the state after long recognizing it as Columbus Day. While it is recognized, it is not considered a holiday in the state. 

There are many states and the District of Columbia that do not officially observe Columbus Day. Some of those states include:

  • Arkansas
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

How To Address the Second Monday in October as an Employer

While the number of companies that have Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day off as a paid holiday has tapered over the years, employers can still plan to engage with their workforce on this day. 

Rather than talking specifically about Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, use the day as a time to plan diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training or use it as an opportunity to simply open up conversations about DEI in the workplace and address any areas where the company could improve.

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