- Last year, President Biden made Indigenous Peoples Day a federal holiday
- Columbus Day is still celebrated, although it is controversial and in decline
- Native American experts see the holiday as an act of respect for past suffering rather than a celebration
The second Monday in October has been a national holiday for nearly a century, but this will be only the second year that Indigenous Peoples Day has celebrated that designation.
Last October, President Joe Biden signed the first presidential proclamation for Indigenous Peoples Day, a commemoration-turned-holiday that began in 1977 to honor the history and culture of Native Americans. That presidential stamp of approval was the most significant boost yet to efforts to reorient a federal holiday that for decades celebrated the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.
While few Americans take issue with the notion of not working on Monday, Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day have sparked political debates in US states, cities and municipalities, particularly in the past decade, with some pushing against change and others favoring the indigenous. Instead, People’s Day.
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What is the Day of Indigenous Peoples?
The celebration of a Day of Indigenous Peoples took root in 1977 in an international conference on discrimination sponsored by the United Nations. It was created as a day to honor Native American peoples and commemorate their histories and cultures. South Dakota was the first state to recognize the day in 1989, followed by the California cities of Berkeley and Santa Cruz.
In 1990, the International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, sponsored by the United Nations, began discussing replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. California and Tennessee celebrate Native American Day in September, without conflicting with Columbus Day.
Scott Stevens, the director of Syracuse University’s Native and Indigenous Studies Program, said Indigenous Peoples Day is about the resilience of what past cultures have suffered as much as it is about honoring heritage.
“It’s recognition of our survival and, in many cases, resilience and even flourishing,” Stevens told USA TODAY. “There are still a lot of social and economic problems that indigenous communities experience. There’s also this idea that American Indians and Native Americans, that we’re all one people. But we have diversity and our cultures are very different. Something that we all are. We have in common that our ancestors suffered because of American colonialism, so it serves as an opportunity where we can turn to each other in unity.”
How and where is the Day of Indigenous Peoples celebrated?
Which states and cities celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day?
More than a dozen states and more than 130 local governments have chosen not to celebrate Columbus Day altogether or to replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day. Many states celebrate both. Eleven US states celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day or a similarly named holiday by proclamation, while 10 others treat it as an official holiday. The 10 states that observe the holiday by proclamation are Arizona, California, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington, DC.
And the 10 that officially celebrate it are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont.
Some tribal groups in Oklahoma celebrate Native American Day instead of Columbus Day, and some groups name the day after their individual tribes.
More than 100 cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Denver, Phoenix and San Francisco.
Stevens said the federal recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day paves the way for more allies and a space for Americans to educate themselves on a deeper level, as adults, about atrocities throughout the States’ history. united
“Having a federal holiday can serve less as a celebration and more as a recognition of past and present experiences,” Stevens said. “I see (Indigenous Peoples Day) as an opportunity to have a more critical discussion about our American history, rather than what people learn in fourth grade about the first Thanksgiving and Pocahontas.
“Having a day recognized or having a critical discussion is not anti-American. What is anti-American is self-censorship of what we’ve been through,” he said.
Is it offensive to celebrate Columbus Day?
Last year, when Biden issued a proclamation for Indigenous Peoples Day, he also issued a proclamation for Columbus Day, established by Congress and first recognized as a national holiday in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In his 2021 speech, Biden praised the role of Italian Americans in American society, but also referenced the violence and damage that Columbus and other explorers of the time caused in the Americas.
“We also recognize the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on tribal nations and indigenous communities,” Biden said. “It is a measure of our greatness as a nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past: that we face them honestly, bring them to light, and do everything we can to address them.”
While some groups argue that Columbus Day, which is still a federal holiday, 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 .
Stevens said the celebration of Columbus Day is outdated because of the cyclical and residual damage caused by the past: “To have seen American colonialism throughout history as not a problem and celebrated as a good thing is deeply problematic for anyone of us who live on a (Native American) community or reservation.
Stevens argued that some Americans tend to ignore that Native Americans were “forced to be assimilated into Euro-American culture” and have a misconception that indigenous communities are only “established in the past.”
“We are a three percent minority in a land that in 1491 was one hundred percent ours,” Stevens said.
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 for European colonization.
Many collectives have asked for the removal of the monuments to Columbus.
“For more than 500 years, indigenous people have been fighting for their survival, their land and their rights,” said Les Begay, a member of the Diné Nation and co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition Illinois, last October. “Every October, when Columbus is honored, he further diminishes and erases the natives, their history and their culture.”
When was Columbus Day established?
Columbus Day celebrations date back to 1792, when New York City celebrated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934, one of 10 official federal holidays.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story published in 2021.