Columbus Day? In More Than 50 Cities, It's Indigenous Peoples Day.

What started as a fringe movement has gained steam in recent years.
by | October 9, 2017
A signing ceremony for a resolution designating the second Monday in October as Indigenous People's Day in Seattle. (AP/Elaine Thompson)

Columbus Day is being recognized today across the United States. But in more than 50 U.S. cities, along with a few universities, counties and states, it's not. Instead, those places are celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day.

Rather than commemorating the explorer Christopher Columbus, who has come to be seen as a controversial figure in recent years, the new holiday focuses on the lives of the people he and other European explorers encountered in the New World.

"Indigenous Peoples Day represents a shift in consciousness," says Dr. Leo Killsback, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and assistant professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University. "It acknowledges that indigenous peoples and their voices are important in today's conversations."

Columbus Day marks the landing of the Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492. President Franklin Roosevelt created the first federal observance of Columbus Day in 1937. President Richard Nixon established it as a federal holiday in 1972, and today it’s celebrated every year on the second Monday of October.

Historians in recent years have reassessed Columbus and the general depiction of him as a heroic figure. Proponents of Indigenous Peoples Day say Columbus and his crew were responsible for rapes, murders and the plunder of the Caribbean islands where they landed. They also say Columbus didn’t "discover" the New World because there were already people living on the islands where he landed.

“Our city owes our very founding to the indigenous peoples in Denver,” Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez told the Denver Post, shortly after the city adopted the new holiday in 2016. “We do this because our history books erase such history. You honor it by making it no longer invisible.”

Berkeley, Calif, was the first in the nation to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992, and Santa Cruz, Calif., followed shortly after. No other cities followed suit for a couple decades. But that has changed in the past two or three years.

A few dozen cities -- from Bangor, Maine, to Spokane, Wash. -- have now made the switch, along with schools such as Syracuse University and the University of Utah. Three states -- Alaska, Minnesota and Vermont -- have changed the holiday. This year alone, some 20 cities voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. One of them was Los Angeles.

"This gesture of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day is a very small step in apologizing and in making amends," L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, told the Los Angeles Times.

Still, jurisdictions that want to change the holiday can face opposition. The parades and festivities that take place on Columbus Day are often a broader recognition of Italian-American culture. Some in the Italian-American community have pushed back against the idea of dropping Columbus Day, seeing it as an erasure of the man and what his achievements mean to some Italian-Americans.

“On behalf of the Italian community, we want to celebrate with you. We just don’t want it to be at the expense of Columbus Day,” Ann Potenza, president of Federated Italo-Americans of Southern California, told the L.A. City Council, according to the Los Angeles Times.