On one hand, Columbus Day often means a day off work or school in the name of a ship captain who made an early trip from Europe to North America. On the other hand, it’s a state celebration of a brutal genocide, painful colonization, and continuing discrimination against Indigenous people.
That’s why, in 1990, South Dakota replaced the annual glorification of Christopher Columbus with celebrations of Native American heritage and culture. Two years later, Berkeley, California, became the first city to adopt Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In the time since, a sprinkling of cities began dropping Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Last year, the movement exploded and more than 20 states, cities, counties and college campuses jumped on the bandwagon.
The movement is growing. At least 17 jurisdictions, from Yakima, Washington to Belfast, Maine, agreed to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday of October. The most recent additions include Phoenix, Arizona and Vermont.
There’s no doubt it’s often a political move — officials in several cities and municipalities are careful to clarify that their adoption of Indigenous Peoples’ Day doesn’t mean they’re ditching Columbus Day. In April, the city of Evanston, Illinois said they would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the calendar this year. Last week, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdah (D) set the record straight: “I gather that some cities have held Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day,” she told local reporters. “But we are not replacing it on that day.”
Still, it’s a sign that activism works. In Evanston’s case, the Chicago-area Mitchell Museum of the American Indian worked to make the change, however limited, happen. Student activists took the lead in Durango, Colorado, where the city council adopted a resolution written by a Fort Lewis College student and young Navajo activist student Ruthie Edd.
Inspired by her success, Colorado Rep. Joe Salazar (D) introduced a similar motion to the state legislature in January. The legislation was killed a few months later by the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. The past month has seen similar initiatives fail in Cincinnati, Oklahoma City, and elsewhere.
That didn’t stop Boulder, Colorado’s city council from unanimously adopting Indigenous Peoples’ Day in August, recognizing that Boulder “has benefited directly from Indian removal policies that violated human rights.”
It’s no exaggeration. Before the vote, a local historian explained how tens of thousands of white gold prospectors drove virtually all the land’s native people away from the area in the 1850s. A decade later, the Colorado Territory militia killed an estimated 230 Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians who remained in the region.
Historians have fairly detailed accounts of the Sand Creek Massacre. But the record can’t encompass the exploitation of Native Americans during the time of Columbus, who is largely still presented in U.S. schools as a heroic explorer. Untold numbers of indigenous people were wiped out by unfamiliar disease, brutalized, forced into slavery and forced to convert to Christianity because of colonization.
Native American communities have spent decades pushing to end the lionization of Columbus — and instead focus on the needs of indigenous communities.
“We’ve been here for hundreds of thousands of years, and we’ve been shy about telling our own story,” said Tribal Chairman Reyn Leno of the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde in Portland, Oregon, which adopted Indigenous Peoples Day after more than 60 years of tribal advocacy. “I think that has led the public to have a lot of interest in what we do.”