Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day? Celebrating Cultural Identities and History
Columbus Day has been part of the calender since 1937 when it was recognized as a Federal holiday. First celebrated in 1792 as part of an effort to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ rediscovery of the Americas, Columbus Day became a vehicle for promoting patriotism by 1892. During that time, Columbus Day also became a day for Italian Americans to celebrate their heritage. The lesser known “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” was first recognized by the City of Berkeley, California in 1992. It was, however, born out of the less heralded Civil Rights movement to protect the rights, cultures, and dignity of “native” Americans, i.e. individuals belonging to one of the many American tribes, in direct protest to Columbus Day.
Framed as a day to celebrate US history and/or a day to celebrate the contributions of Italian Americans, the effort to replace Columbus day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day seems fairly infantile. It is, after all, possible to honor both causes with two separate holidays. Opponents of Columbus Day, however, are also denouncing European Colonialism as well as the abuse and disenfranchisement of indigenous Peoples. While it is easy to call proponents of Indigenous Peoples’ Day revisionists, there is a clear and compelling argument against glorifying a cruel and evil man like Christopher Columbus. If that argument can be accepted, proponents of Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day can actually find common ground.
The great grandmother of this writer, whose mother was an “indigenous” person, was taught to hide the fact she was an “Indian.” She was told to never reveal her heritage, because people would mistreat her. Today, learning about one’s connection to the American tribes is considered interesting, but it was a very different story in the early 1900s. “Indians” were not considered people in the eyes of many. As such, they were taught to be ashamed of their heritage. Taking that into account, there is a clear and compelling argument for an Indigenous Peoples’ Day. No one should be ashamed of their cultural identity and the history of their ancestors, whether good or bad. History cannot be changed. It must embraced for what it is, so all people can learn from the triumphs and mistakes of their ancestors.
With that in mind, the indigenous Peoples of the Americas, as well as the other continents colonized by Europe were terribly mistreated. In the case of the United States, the American tribes were nearly wiped off the face of the Earth. What happened to the indigenous Peoples living in what is now the United States was what the modern world calls genocide. As the man credited for starting that genocide, Christopher Columbus probably should not be honored. He certainly should not have a national holiday named after him. What should be recognized and commemorated is the history of the Americas. Christopher Columbus is obviously a part of that history, but he is one of many figures who indirectly contributed to the founding of the United States, which Columbus never visited.
In truth, Leif Eriksson, who is the viking believed to have been the first European visitor to the Americans, John Cabot, i.e. the actual first European to rediscover the land that would become the US, or, better yet, the colonialists of Jamestown, Virginia. Replacing Columbus Day with John Cabot Day, Jamestown Day, or Explorers’ Day would do a great more to honor US history than focusing on what Christopher Columbus did. Clearly, proponents of Indigenous Peoples’ Day want to erase Columbus Day, but the fight only stains the broader campaign to remember, recognize, and honor the contributions of the many indigenous Peoples in the Americas and around the world. It is, therefore, either necessary to celebrate both causes simultaneously on the same day or stake claim to a far more meaningful date.
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