Growing up, we all likely encountered a very rosy description of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, how he sailed the ocean blue, discovered America, had three ships, blah, blah, blah. In reality, Columbus was something of a giant horror show in terms of his deadly impact on indigenous peoples, thirst for wealth and relative indifference to the plight of others. Oh — and he likely introduced syphilis to Europe.
Is this really the kind of person who deserves a federal holiday?
For many, that answer is a resounding no. As more of Columbus’s transgressions become known, there’s increasing pressure to remove his name from anything to do with the second Monday in October and instead honor those who settled the “New World” thousands of years earlier. Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in Nebraska to replace Columbus Day with “Standing Bear and Indigenous Leaders’ Day.” A compromise was reached in March to call it Columbus, Standing Bear and Indigenous Leaders’ Day.
In 2014, Alaska renamed it “Indigenous Peoples Day.” And in 2014, both Seattle and Minneapolis voted to stop recognizing Columbus Day in favor of “Indigenous Peoples Day.” According to the Associated Press, the new holiday “celebrates the contributions and culture of Native Americans and the indigenous community.”
Other areas, including Los Angeles County and Portland, Maine, have recently taken measures to remove Columbus Day as a recognized holiday in their respective jurisdictions, and instead recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. A petition to do likewise in Atlanta has been garnering some attention.
Inspired by this movement, the University of Alaska Southeast, Oklahoma University and even Fargo, North Dakota voted to also embrace Indigenous Peoples Day. In announcing the change, Oklahoma University president David Boren said, in 2015, that the new holiday will feature a daylong celebration of Native culture on campus — including food, dance, the arts and special lectures.
“We must never forget the many injustices in our history in the treatment of Native people and never stop admiring the strength of Native people who have preserved their values and whose cultures and governments continue in the face of terrible adversities and injustices,” he wrote in a statement.
Currently, 21 states recognize Columbus Day as a true holiday, giving their employees the day off. Efforts to officially change its federal designation on social media and through the White House’s We the People petition site had some support during Barack Obama’s tenure, but those efforts fell short of the 100,000 signatures needed for a response from the Obama administration. However, during then-President Obama’s annual declaration of the holiday, there appeared to be a growing acknowledgement of the day to be not just about Columbus, but those who were also here long before.
“As we recognize the influence of Christopher Columbus, we also pay tribute to the legacy of Native Americans and our Government’s commitment to strengthening their tribal sovereignty,” Obama wrote in 2014. “We celebrate the long history of the American continents and the contributions of a diverse people, including those who have always called this land their home and those who crossed an ocean and risked their lives to do so. With the same sense of exploration, we boldly pursue new frontiers of space, medicine, and technology and dare to change our world once more.”
In this animated TED-Ed video, Columbus takes he stand in History vs. Christopher Columbus:
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in October 2015.
Get ready to celebrate ‘Indigenous Peoples Day’
Efforts to replace Columbus Day gain momentum across the nation.