Quest to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day sails ahead

(Photo credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

The state of Vermont and the cities of Denver and Phoenix joined the growing list of places celebrating Native Americans on the federal holiday named for Christopher Columbus.

Since Columbus Day 2015, at least 14 communities in the United States have passed measures designating the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day.

The changes build on recent efforts to shift the day’s focus from the Italian explorer, beginning in big cities including Seattle, Minneapolis and Albuquerque, and spreading to counties and school districts.

“Indigenous Peoples Day represents a shift in consciousness,” said 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.”

What does it mean?

The movement is part of broader attempts to clarify the Italian explorer’s role in American history and connect indigenous identity to something more than controversies about sports teams and cultural appropriation.

Historians largely agree that he did not “discover” the Americas because people were already there, nor was he the first European to reach the “New World.” He sailed around the Caribbean, enslaving the people of present-day Haiti, bringing violence and disease to the region and decimating the population. He opened up the Americas to European settlement at the expense of the indigenous population, paving the way for the European slave trade.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about Columbus is that he was righteous. The truth is that he was wicked and responsible for the rape and murder of innocent indigenous people,” said Killsback, who pushed for Indigenous Peoples Day in Phoenix.

“We should question why we as Americans continue to celebrate him without knowing the true history of his legacy, and why a holiday was created in the first place. He never landed in the USA,” he said.

Do you have to go to work?

In most places, Indigenous Peoples Day does not replace Columbus Day or make it a paid holiday if it was not already one. Only 23 states and Washington recognize it as a paid holiday for state workers.

The change makes Vermont the latest state to ditch Columbus Day and make it about the people he encountered after crossing the ocean blue. South Dakota has celebrated Native American Day instead of Columbus Day since 1990.

Gov. Peter Sumlin’s proclamation renames the holiday and encourages “all Vermonters to recognize the sacrifice and contributions of the First Peoples of this land.” But it’s not a paid holiday there and there’s nothing stopping local governments or communities from holding their own Columbus Day celebrations.

The change is slightly different from Alaska, which adopted Indigenous Peoples Day in 2015, in the sense that the state never celebrated Columbus Day. Same goes for Hawaii, which has always celebrated Discoverers’ Day in honor of the Polynesian explorers who colonized the Hawaiian islands, instead of Columbus.

Not just in America

Even in the Spain, where the monarchy sponsored Columbus’ voyage, people are rethinking his legacy.

A group of left-wing city council members in Barcelona called for the city to remove a 196-foot statue of Christopher Columbus in one of its most heavily trafficked intersections as part of a proposal to strike the October 12 national holiday and return it to a regular working day.

Council member María José Lecha González said public commemoration of Columbus glorifies colonialism and imperialism, and called the holiday a “mockery” of the genocide of the indigenous population.

The proposal failed to garner enough votes to pass after being submitted to the Barcelona city council in September. But González said that simply raising the issue was an important step.

“For a week, this proposal and these matters and the questions [they] raised, have been in the media, and they have been on the streets, and they reached many other places that they hadn’t reached before.”

Opposition continues

The support is far from universal. In Oklahoma City, home to one of the nation’s largest Native American populations, city leaders rejected a proposal for the second year in a row to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. So did the Cincinnati City Council, through five abstentions and four votes in favor.

Nor does it mean an end to Columbus Day celebrations in communities that adopted Indigenous Peoples Day.

Denver’s annual Columbus Day parade sponsored by the Order Sons of Italy Lodge No. 2075 continued as planned on Saturday, sparking a counter-demonstration.

The point of Indigenous Peoples Day is not to erase Columbus from the history books or collective memory, said Ruthie Edd, a student at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, who worked on the proposal to the Durango City Council supporting the holiday.

The goal is to change the conversation to talk about his impact on present-day indigenous communities as part of the healing process.

“As we focus on the healing element of Indigenous Peoples Day we open ourselves up to being better global citizens who are aware of the struggles and the experience of other people and groups.”