Indigenous Peoples Day or Columbus Day?

  • Across the country, states, cities and schools are observing Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day.
  • Columbus Day celebrations date back to 1792, when New York City celebrated the 300th anniversary of his landfall.
  • The notion of an Indigenous Peoples Day took root at an international conference on discrimination sponsored by the United Nations in 1977.

Scores of cities and towns plan to host virtual or outdoor events Monday to mark Indigenous Peoples Day, which celebrates and honors Native American histories and cultures.

Fourteen states – Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin – plus the District of Columbia and more than 130 cities observe Indigenous Peoples Day instead of or in addition to Columbus Day.

The notion of an Indigenous Peoples Day took root at an international conference on discrimination sponsored by the United Nations in 1977. South Dakota was the first state to recognize the day in 1989, and the cities of Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California, followed. California and Tennessee observe Native American Day in September.

Though some groups argue that Columbus Day celebrates Italian American heritage, many say the holiday glorifies an exploration that led to the genocide of native peoples and paved the way for slavery.

Although Columbus is credited as the “discoverer” of the New World, millions of people already inhabited the Americas. Columbus made four expeditions to the Caribbean and South America over two decades, enslaving and decimating populations and opening the floodgates of European colonization.

Many groups have called for the removal of monuments to Columbus, as well as to Confederate generals. Several Columbus statues came down this summer amid protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May and cries to end systemic racism.

Columbus, Ohio, named for the explorer, removed the Columbus statue outside City Hall. The city of Genoa, Italy, where Columbus was from, sent it as a gift 65 years ago. In Baltimore, protesters pulled down a statue of Columbus and threw it into the city’s Inner Harbor on the Fourth of July. And in Chicago, officials “temporarily” took down two statues of Columbus after dozens were injured in a clash between protesters and police at one of the monuments.

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Workers remove the Christopher Columbus statue on the Broad Street side of Columbus City Hall Wednesday, July 1, 2020.

Chicago’s Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans plan to hold an outdoor rally at one of the former sites of a Columbus statute – now a pedestal surrounded by chain-link fence – on Monday after Chicago’s Columbus Day Parade, like many across the nation, was canceled this year during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our Italian American community is excited to recognize an important tradition it has practiced for generations,” Sergio Giangrande, president of the Joint Civic Committee, said in a statement. “Even though this year’s parade has been canceled due to COVID-19, we still want to perpetuate the holiday in a very respectful, yet effective way. Masks and social distancing will definitely be a priority.”

More than 16 million people in the USA – nearly 5% of the population – reported Italian ancestry in the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.

Columbus Day celebrations date back to 1792, when New York City celebrated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934 – one of 10 official federal holidays.

A work crew removes the Columbus statue in Grant Park in the early hours of Friday July 24, 2020, in Chicago.

Columbus, Ohio, stopped observing the holiday in 2018, citing a lack of funding to give city employees both Veterans Day and Columbus Day off.

In a proclamation Friday, President Donald Trump called on U.S. citizens “to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities” and directed that the American flag be displayed on all public buildings Monday. He pushed back against the movement to recognize the day as Indigenous Peoples Day.

“Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities and his achievements with transgressions,” Trump said. “We must teach future generations about our storied heritage, starting with the protection of monuments to our intrepid heroes like Columbus.”

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Trump has campaigned to protect monuments and end programs aimed at teaching America’s history of racism. In June, Trump signed an executive order that he said would provide long prison sentences to people who tear down or vandalize statues and other historical monuments. On the Fourth of July, he announced during a speech in front of Mount Rushmore an executive order to establish a “National Garden of American Heroes” featuring statues of “historically significant Americans.”

Last month, Trump called for “patriotic education” and a “pro-American curriculum” in the nation’s schools and moved to end racial sensitivity training that addresses white privilege and critical race theory at federal agencies.

But more and more cities, states, counties and school boards observe Indigenous Peoples Day every year.

In February, the Chicago Board of Education voted to change the name of Columbus Day. In early September, the governor of Arizona signed a proclamation that recognizes Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 12 but does not replace Columbus Day as a state holiday. Rockville, Maryland, Salem, Massachusetts, and Montgomery, Alabama, plan to mark Indigenous Peoples Day for the first time Monday.

Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed described it as a “recognition of the city’s true history.”

“We are not rewriting history. In fact, we are allowing for a more accurate accounting of history by acknowledging the people who are native to this land,” Reed wrote to the Montgomery Advertiser, part of the USA TODAY Network. “We must be honest about the past in order to heal, reconcile and become an even stronger community.”

To mark the day, the Alabama Indigenous Coalition plans a gathering in downtown Montgomery with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw that will culminate in a march to the Capitol in honor of those who died along the Trail of Tears – the 5,000-mile forced march of millions of people from tribal nations across nine states to present-day Oklahoma.

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“There’s no visible Indigenous footprint here when in actuality, this is all their land,” Valerie Adams, a member of South Dakota’s Oglala Lakota Nation who has lived in Montgomery for more than a decade, told the Advertiser.

Many Native American communities have been hit hard by COVID-19. Black, Latino and Native American households have also borne the brunt of the pandemic’s economic fallout.

According to a new report, about 55% of Native American households reported facing serious financial problems, and a sizable share reported that household members had been unable to get medical care for serious problems. About half of Native American households reported either having serious problems with their internet connection or not having a high-speed internet connection at home.

Tori Jackson, a member of the Muscogee Nation, told the Advertiser that recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day is “a good start.”

“But we have a lot more work to do,” Jackson said.

Contributing: Safiya Charles, Montgomery Advertiser; Mark Ferenchik, The Columbus Dispatch

William 'Dan' Isaac approaches the steps of the capitol as Alabama Indigenous Coalition members and supporters march on Dexter Ave. in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. Alabama Indigenous Coalition wants the city to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.


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