Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrates Native American peoples and recognizes their histories and cultures in a progressive counter-celebration to the federally recognized Columbus Day. Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people reject celebrating Christopher Columbus because of the violent colonization he represents as a historical figure. The grade-school notion of “Columbus discovered America” erases the humanity of the hundreds of Native tribes who occupied the continent long before Columbus set foot on what he believed were the West Indies.
Columbus, an Italian sailing for Spain may have crossed the ocean blue in 1492, but the children’s rhyme leaves out some key facts. The explorer was also the harbinger of colonization and genocide against the Native communities who had occupied the Americas for centuries before his arrival.
Columbus’ trip was intended to find a direct route from Europe to Asia in search of riches, but Columbus was not the first to propose the possibility of reaching Asia by sailing West from Europe. The idea dates back to the notion that the Earth is round, which was recognized as far back as within the teachings of ancient Rome. He was not even the first European to discover the Americas — Viking Leif Erikson sailed to Greenland and Newfoundland in the 11th century. Instead of reaching Asia, Columbus landed in the Caribbean.
During a time when the international slave trade was starting to grow, Columbus and his crew subjected the Native inhabitants of the land he found to violence and brutality. According to History, his journal says that on the first day in the “New World,” Columbus ordered six Natives to be seized. Throughout his voyages, Columbus enacted forced labor policies on the Indigenous people for the sake of profit, forcing them to mine and extract from their own land. Later, he endorsed the kidnapping of thousands of Taino “Indians” from the island of Hispaniola and allowed them to be sent to Spain where they were sold as slaves. Many did not survive the trip. Within 60 years of Columbus landing on the island, only hundreds of a Taino population that was estimated to total more than 250,000 remained.
According to documents discovered by Spanish historians in 2005, Columbus violently quelled a rebellion of Native people in what is now the Dominican Republic by ordering brutal and sadistic killings. Columbus-era colonization also brought disease from Europe to the Americas that killed many Native people who had not built immunities to these foreign illnesses.
Columbus did have an undeniable impact on the world, but whether that impact is worthy of celebration remains debatable.
Many Italian Americans celebrate Columbus Day as an opportunity to recognize Italian migration to America and the impact Italian Americans have had on the country. When Italians first immigrated to the U.S. between 1880 and 1920, anti-Italianism — especially against darker-skinned southern Italians — led to gang violence against many who came to the U.S. escaping poverty and working in cities as laborers. Advocates for the holiday say Columbus Day has historical value of unifying Italian Americans, the New York Times reports.
Protestors have vandalized statues of Columbus in cities like New York City and Salt Lake City, but some believe that tearing down statues is a misguided attempt to erase history. Advocates against Columbus Day say that this history — which led to centuries of genocide, forced assimilation, land-stealing and natural resource exploitation by white settlers — is not worth celebrating with public statues.
“For us, the bottom line is Columbus Day is just a celebration of genocide,” Roberto Borrero, president of the United Confederation of Taino People, told the New York Times in 2018.
Adopting Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a Holiday
Since the 1990s, universities, localities and states have made moves to declare the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but it is not yet federally recognized.
Some of the states that have adopted it include:
- South Dakota, which passed a measure to honor Native American Day in lieu of Columbus Day in 1990.
- Alaska, which officially recognized Indigenous Peoples Day in 2017.
- Wisconsin, which declared the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day in 2019.
- New Mexico, which replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in 2019.
- Maine, which also recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2019.
- Arizona, which declared Oct. 12 Indigenous Peoples’ Day beginning this year. Arizona governor, Republican Doug Ducey, signed the proclamation Sept. 4, 2020.
How to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day This Year
- Familiarize yourself with and discuss Native American history and the true, un-sanitized stories of colonization.
- Support organizations that advocate for Indigenous autonomy and rights.
- Consume and share media made by Native American creators. This list of Native American media companies share news and culture of Native communities in the U.S.
- Call on leaders to allot resources to Native lands and stop environmental extraction that threatens Indigenous ways of life.