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Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day: the fight over a name and why it matters

Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day: the fight over a name and why it matters
[Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel/Wikimedia Commons]

Maine, Vermont, New Mexico, and, as of this week, Wisconsin, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., aren’t celebrating Columbus Day today.

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Instead, they’re marking Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

They’re not the first to strip off the name of explorer Christopher Columbus from the federal holiday that rolls around every second Monday of October. Over 100 states, municipalities, and universities have made the switch.

At issue is Columbus’s notorious treatment of the people he found living in the places he discovered—the brutality of his landing parties in the form of enslavement, rape, and infection. In the United States, it was the beginning of the end for Native American societies, which would go on to suffer extermination through disease, alcohol addiction, and warfare with the Europeans moving to their continent for the centuries that followed. Their land would be stolen from them and the U.S. government would break treaties made with their leaders.

To many American workers in the modern era, Columbus Day may mean little more than mattress sales (increasingly, we don’t even get the day off), but the story of the Italian explorer—bankrolled by the Spanish—who found new worlds to colonize continues to sting.

“It was a reaction to a sense of ‘Why would Americans celebrate Columbus?’ says Sebastian Braun, director of American Indian studies at Iowa State University, of efforts to change the holiday’s name. “From an indigenous perspective, he came to be seen as someone not very positive, who came to be seen as an initiator of oppression and the taking away of land and rights.”

“[The name-changing] will continue,” Braun adds, “because Native peoples have gained a voice that is heard.”

The turning point came in 1990, when South Dakota changed the name of the holiday to Native Americans’ Day, part of the state’s Year of Reconciliation with its tribes. Two years later, Berkeley, California, became the first city to officially jettison the Columbus Day name; the new moniker was Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Even places named after the Italian explorer are rethinking how the day should be marked. Last year, Columbus, Ohio, opened city offices on Columbus Day and ran municipal services, like trash collection and parking enforcement, as usual. It swapped the day off for Veterans Day “[i]n honor of those who have served in the military,” explained the state’s capital city. Columbus will do the same thing this year, said Robin Davis, a spokeswoman for the city, adding that she wasn’t aware of plans to change the name of the day or the municipality.

Since the name-changing trend began to take hold, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is the name that has stuck. It’s often marked by celebrations of Native Americans’ history and heritage, which may include cultural events, vigils to mark the genocide, and healing gatherings. There are currently an estimated 6.8 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 data.

Italian American pride

Despite the growing support for the holiday’s new name, not everyone likes the change. Some view it as mushy-gushy liberal baloney, while others see a rewriting—or, at least, misinterpretation—of history. Even the hit HBO show The Sopranos touched on the controversy.

Among the strongest opponents are Italian Americans who take pride in the explorer and celebrate his contributions to world history. This group suffered discrimination, especially during periods of mass immigration from their homeland in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Columbus Day is a great American holiday,” says Andre’ DiMino, communications director for the Italian American One Voice Coalition, a national network of Italian American activists. “They’re listening to false stories, to what they’re attributing to Columbus.”

DiMino pointed to August 9, the United Nations-established International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, and to November, which is National American Indian Heritage Month in the United States, and explained that the battle over the day is pitting one ethnicity against another.

“Columbus’s voyages over here opened up the New World; it was the start of this part of the world for exploration,” he says. “Columbus Day has become an Italian American holiday. It is observed by over 25 million Americans.”

The first documented U.S. celebration of Columbus Day was on October 12, 1792, the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s landing, according to the Library of Congress. One hundred years later saw the first official Columbus Day holiday, thanks to President Benjamin Harrison, who called him “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” (In an op-ed over the weekend, the New York Times explores how this proclamation “opened the door for Italian-Americans to write themselves into the American origin story.”)

There’d been much more Columbus-philia before the 180, including Colorado becoming the first state to make October 12 a legal holiday in 1907 and President Franklin Roosevelt declaring it a national holiday in 1934.

Thirty-seven years later, Columbus Day switched from that hard date to the looser second-Monday-in-October designation. But in the 21st century, there seems to be no end in sight to the fight over what to call it. “People are not really fighting over the day,” says Braun. “They’re fighting over political symbols.”

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