Today in the nation’s capital, there is no Columbus Day. The D.C. Council voted to replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in a temporary move that it hopes to make permanent. Several other places across the United States have also made the switch in a growing movement to end the celebration of the Italian explorer in favor of honoring Indigenous communities and their resiliency in the face of violence by European explorers like Christopher Columbus.
The simple facts are that Christopher Columbus did not ‘discover’ the Americas … the indigenous people were always here. And, at the hands of Columbus and those Europeans who would come after, the indigenous people, aka Native Americans, suffered greatly from being enslaved, diseased, dispossessed of their land, and slaughtered. So, over the past few decades there has been a growing movement to alter the holiday to honour those who first occupied the country.
The movement is controversial, for we tend to cling to the traditions we have known all our lives, but it is a growing movement, with a number of states and cities doing what D.C. did, replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Thus far, the states of Minnesota, Alaska, Vermont, Maine, Louisiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Oregon, have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Hawaii celebrates Discoverers’ Day on this date, and South Dakota celebrates Native American Day, as have many cities too numerous to list here – more than 130, in fact.
Trump, however, instead has issued a formal proclamation recognizing Columbus Day, citing Columbus as a “great explorer, whose courage, skill, and drive for discovery are at the core of the American spirit,” calling the two-month journey across the Atlantic a “watershed voyage” which ushered in a new age. But then, in this I consider him to be rather irrelevant.
So … how did this all start?
In 1977, the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, sponsored by the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, began to discuss replacing Columbus Day in the United States with a celebration to be known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
1992 would mark the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus, and there was a “Quincentennial Jubilee” planned to mark the date. In San Francisco, the day was to include replicas of Columbus’ ships sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge and reenacting their “discovery” of America. It was then that the Bay Area Indian Alliance was formed, and they created the “Resistance 500” task force, promoting the idea that Columbus’ “discovery” of inhabited lands and subsequent European colonization of these areas had resulted in the genocide of indigenous peoples by decisions of colonial and national governments.
The group convinced the city council of Berkeley, California, to declare October 12 as a “Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People” and 1992 the “Year of Indigenous People”. The city implemented related programs in schools, libraries, and museums. The city symbolically renamed Columbus Day as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” beginning in 1992 to protest the historical conquest of North America by Europeans, and to call attention to the losses suffered by the Native American peoples and their cultures through diseases, warfare, massacres, and forced assimilation.In the years following Berkeley’s action, other local governments and institutions have either renamed or canceled Columbus Day, either to celebrate Native American history and cultures, to avoid celebrating Columbus and the European colonization of the Americas, or due to raised controversy over the legacy of Columbus.
Let’s take a look at just a few of the many contributions indigenous people have made to our world:
- Constitution & Bill of Rights: According to Benjamin Franklin, the “concept” for the federal government was influenced by the Constitution of the Iroquois League of Nations.
- Sign Language: Today, hand signals are used to communicate with those who are deaf and/or mute. A similar system was originated to facilitate trade between Native Americans and early trappers/traders.
- Products: Native Americans are credited with introducing such diverse products as snowshoes, moccasins, toboggans, buckskin jackets, Kayaks, cradle boards, tomahawks, rubber, cotton, quinine, tobacco, cigars, and pipe smoking, among others.
- Military Service: The participation rate of Native Americans in military service is higher than for any other ethnic group in the U.S. Members from many Indian nations have served with distinction and in a way that helped the U.S. win World Wars I and II… through the use of their various Native languages.
- Conservation: The Native Americans have always held a deep respect for the land and for our connection to this planet known as “Mother Earth.” They have always striven to live in harmony with the seasons and the land, to take only what was needed, and to thank every plant, animal, or thing that was used.
- Art/Design: The traditional and contemporary music of Native Americans have become integrated in many other cultures and musical styles. Indian artwork such as paintings, beadwork, totem poles, turquoise jewelry, and silversmithing, all remain beautiful and unmatched in this society.
And of course, a wide variety of foods, including potatoes, beans, corn, peanuts, pumpkins, tomatoes, squash, peppers, nuts, melons, and sunflower seeds.
We can never make up to the indigenous people in the Americas for what was done to their ancestors, but we can resolve to do better, and we can honour them in this way, by setting aside a special day of remembrance for all that they went through, and for all that they have given.