Abolish Columbus Day.

Photo by Andrew James on Unsplash

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If you go by the federal holiday calendar, today is Columbus Day. But, more fittingly, today is being recognized by people, cities, and states as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a day to honor and celebrate Indigenous communities across the U.S. and minimize the violence and harm that Columbus Day represents.

The genocide and displacement of Indigenous communities worldwide because of colonization have caused atrocious historical harm that persists through the present day. This discrimination is why the community of 370 million Indigenous peoples globally “make up 15% of the world’s extreme poor” and suffer ‘higher rates of landlessness, malnutrition and internal displacement than other groups” (Amnesty International). A 2017 study shows that over half of Indigenous communities living on tribal lands or other majority-Native areas in the U.S. say they have experienced racial or ethnic discrimination when interacting with police (55%) and applying for jobs (54%) (NPR). COVID-19 data on Native Americans has been called “a national disgrace” by leading researchers (Science). And it took all the way until 2020 for the NFL team formerly known as the Washington Redskins, a harmful slur against Native Americans, to have their name changed (Washington Post).

This campaign is a small step towards justice. But know that it is not new, even if it’s new to you. Activists have pushed for an alternative to Columbus Day since the 1970s. Berkeley, CA, was the first city in the U.S. to adopt this holiday in the early 90s (Time). Important to note: South Dakota started calling referring to Columbus Day as “Native American Day” in 1989 (Washington Post).

As of now, 14 states— Alabama, Alaska, Hawai’i, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin, and D.C – over 130 cities, and growing numbers of school districts celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of or in addition to* Columbus Day (Smithsonian Magazine). You can dive into more about the process and any opposition for various locations in this NYTimes article.

“It’s about celebrating people instead of thinking about somebody who actually caused genocide on a population or tried to cause the genocide of an entire population. By bringing Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we’re bringing awareness that we’re not going to allow someone like that to be glorified into a hero, because of the hurt that he caused to Indigenous people of America.

Baley Champagne, tribal citizen of the United Houma Nation, for NPR.

After centuries of erasure and oppression, Indigenous people deserve to be celebrated more than one day a year. This initiative shouldn’t be considered merely a replacement for Columbus Day. But as we advocate for the change, we need to remember that Columbus Day itself is incredibly harmful, and disavowing it is a distinct issue. We need to reject the whitewashed and glorified story of Columbus as a famed discoverer and acknowledge the harm he created to native communities through his colonialization.

Christopher Columbus is not the famed explorer we learned about in school. His travels here sparked the rapid colonization of the Americas as we know them today. He enslaved and mutilated Indigenous peoples as soon as he arrived. Not only that, he was financially incentivized to reap as much value from the lands he visited as possible – economizing the harm (Biography). He wasn’t even the first to “discover” America; the Vikings had already visited five centuries earlier (Brittanica). He didn’t even step foot into the continental United States (Washington Post). Y’all, even the names of the ships are likely false.

But let’s take a step further and dismantle the “discoverer” part of his story altogether – because Indigenous people were already living here, so there was nothing to find. The idea that a place needed to be “discovered” by white people for its validation is part of the colonialization and oppression that influences our thinking to this day. And this colonialization has been used to validate the domination of Indigenous people around the world to this very day.

Some are opposed to switching from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day is because they don’t want to erase the Italian contribution to this country. Italian immigrants have celebrated Columbus Day in the United States since 1792 (Harvard), and Italian Americans lobbied to create Columbus Day as a nationally recognized holiday in the early 1900s (Time). This particularly resonates in New York, which has a large Italian American community. The state, often known for its relatively liberal slant on supporting similar issues, still recognizes Columbus Day.  Former New York governor Andrew Cuomo said, while opposing the removal of a statue of Columbus in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle statue, that it has come to “signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York”(lohud). Now, the New York City public school system recognizes the day as Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day (ABC News). *This also contributes to why some of the communities mentioned above celebrate “both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Google Calendar, for example, include both if you have “holidays in the United States” toggled on in your view.

But this is a conversation on not just the actions of one person, but the system that prioritizes one narrative over the other. Columbus Day stands for more than only Christopher Columbus. It’s a nationally recognized holiday that glorifies our nation’s history of oppression, enslavement, dispossession, and genocide against Indigenous communities. It positions the United States as the “land of the free” without acknowledging the free people that had their land taken from them for this country to be built. And as it persists, it works to justify the continued harm against Indigenous communities. I’d like to see a federal holiday that holds us accountable for repairing and restoring Indigenous communities’ rights.

That’s why it’s essential that, as you move to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day, your efforts go past today and into tomorrow. Renaming a holiday alone is insufficient. It’s easy to acknowledge something one day a year, but far more necessary to center the voices and needs of Indigenous communities in all aspects of your life.

Key Takeaways

  • Advocates have been fighting for decades to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a day to acknowledge and celebrate the diverse Indigenous communities across the U.S.
  • The narrative of Christopher Columbus has been whitewashed and glorified, removing how damaging his personal actions and the role of colocalization is to Indigenous communities.
  • Upholding the whitewashed narrative of Columbus Day perpetuates systemic oppression and harm against marginalized communities, particularly Indigenous communities.
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