As More Cities Adopt Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Is the End of Columbus Day Near?

Lead Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP
Elaine Thompson/AP
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As the second Monday in October approaches, city council members in Eugene, Cambridge, Phoenix, Boulder, East Lansing, Denver, Yakima, Santa Fe, and Flagstaff have voted to dump Columbus Day – a holiday celebrating violent instigator of genocide Christopher Columbus – in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This change, which acknowledges colonialism’s dark history and honors native populations’ contributions, has taken place across the United States over the last few years. In 2015, for example, at least eight cities decided to drop the holiday. And this shift is even present in schools like Brown University, Fort Lewis College, and the Niagara Wheatfield School Board.

With a growing number of cities and institutions choosing to honor the indigenous communities that lived in the Americas way before Columbus arrived in 1492, it has raised one question: Is Columbus Day going extinct? The short answer is, probably not anytime soon. To get there, it’ll take a lot of work and Congress’ cooperation. And as the Daily Beast reports, it’s seemingly not on the governing body’s radar. Even though indigenous groups have seen success in at least two dozen cities, a lot of opposition remains. Cincinnati and Oklahoma City both rejected proposals to make the switch this year. For Oklahoma City, this marks the second rejection in two years.

Native Americans at Dartmouth/Facebook/Kohar Avakia
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There’s also plenty of resistance from Italian-American communities, who say the holiday honors their heritage, as well as cultural exchange between two groups of people. But as a 2014 Last Week Tonight segment points out, history glosses over the enslavement, forced assimilation, and stealing of property that actually occurred. Plus, Italian-Americans have plenty of other heroes – who didn’t wipe out or kidnap indigenous populations – that they can celebrate.

Columbus Day first came in the 1890s as Italians were targets of anti-immigrant sentiments. As Italians’ foreignness made them victims of discrimination that even led to a mass lynching in 1891, they began extolling a man credited for discovering the Americas, directly linking them to the United States’ history. According to NPR, President Benjamin Harrison called for a national observance of Columbus Day in 1892 – in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival – despite the fact that he never set foot in the United States. Columbus Day didn’t become a federal holiday until 1934.

Historian Laurence Bergreen estimates that when Columbus arrived at the island that the Dominican Republic and Haiti share, 300,000 indigenous peoples lived in Hispaniola. Through disease and enslavement, that number dropped to about 500 by 1550, The Guardian reports.

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Since at least the 1990s, there’s been a growing movement to right this wrong by exchanging Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In Latin America, Día de la Raza commemorates Christopher Columbus’ arrival. But just like in the United States, some countries have abandoned this holiday, which incorrectly lauds colonizers instead of the indigenous populations that fought Europeans’ invasion. Though Día de la Raza was meant to honor Hispanic culture, countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Peru exalt those who were there first.