The second Monday in October is celebrated across the nation – with a few exceptions – as Columbus Day. It’s a time to honor Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who mistakenly landed on American soil and started the migration of Europeans and the colonization of a previously occupied land. The first celebrations of the day were created by Italian and Catholic communities seeking to recognize and honor the momentous event that led to the creation of the United States we know today. As time continued, more people got on board, and it finally became a national holiday in 1972, when President Richard Nixon designated the second Monday in October to honor the explorer.
However, just as soon as the day became official, another crusade to oust Columbus and replace him with indigenous peoples began. In 1977, participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas suggested renaming that Monday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Instead of celebrating the near destruction of a people, proponents of changing the name wished to honor the Native Americans and recognize them as the true first settlers of the land. They want Americans to rethink history and realize that although America was born during those fateful Columbus landings, another way of life and culture suffered – and some tribes became extinct. In 2015, Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at Penn State University-Altoona, Sarah Shear, and colleagues Ryan T. Knowles, Gregory J. Soden, and Antonio J. Castro published data based on US history from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. They concluded that 87% of Native American references are from before the 1900s. They wrote:
“The narrative presented in U.S. history standards, when analyzed with a critical eye, directed students to see Indigenous Peoples as a long since forgotten episode in the country’s development.”
The effort to remove and replace Columbus isn’t just about honoring the people who originally made America their home, but also to shed more light on what proponents consider a forgotten and misunderstood history.
“When one looks at the larger picture painted by the quantitative data, it is easy to argue that the narrative of U.S. history is painfully one sided in its telling of the American narrative, especially with regard to Indigenous Peoples’ experiences.”
Not all indigenous people are for the change, however. Some would rather just keep that band-aid in place and get on with the rest of their lives. Others, though, believe that history should reflect more than just the white man’s conquering of a land and a people, that it should also demonstrate what life had been like for the inhabitants before the Europeans forever altered their way of life.
“The qualitative findings further illuminate a Euro-American narrative that reinstitutes the marginalization of Indigenous cultures and knowledge. Indigenous Peoples are left in the shadows of Euro-America’s destiny, while the cooperation and conflict model provides justification for the eventual termination of Indigenous Peoples from the American landscape and historical narrative. Finally, a tone of detachment, especially with long lists of legal and political terms, dismisses the humanity of Indigenous cultures and experiences in the United States.”
Right or wrong, the move to replace Columbus with Indigenous Peoples’ Day is gaining momentum. In 1990, South Dakota became the first state to officially change the holiday’s name, and Berkeley, CA, in 1992, became the first city to do the same. Hawaii also got on board and changed the name to Discoverers’ Day to honor the Polynesian navigators who peopled the islands.