In 2021, President Joseph R. Biden issued a proclamation on Friday, October 11 announcing that date as Indigenous People’s Day. The President’s statement opened, “Since time immemorial, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have built vibrant and diverse cultures — safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations.”
Indigenous Peoples’ Day will be observed on Monday, October 10, 2022.
The proclamation continues, “On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our Nation celebrates the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations.”
This is highly significant as it’s the first time a sitting president acknowledged this day as anything other than Columbus Day. And as we’ll see below, that is an important step forward when it comes to acknowledging the existence of, and accomplishments by, the first Americans.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an alternative to Columbus Day. Observed on the second Monday in October each year, It offers an account of American history that sidesteps the whitewashing and the belief in Manifest Destiny in favor of a far more realistic view of history.
That realistic view includes acknowledging Christopher Columbus as a ruthless owner of slaves, and a colonizing force that inflicted much death and bloodshed in places Colonized by the Columbus expeditions.
The fact that Columbus is credited in some circles with “discovering America” is enough to infuriate those who have worked to establish acknowledgement that America already had thriving cultures living there in 1492. Columbus did not “tame” a wild and unpopulated America. Instead, he arrived on land which was already in use.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not a national holiday–not at press time. While the President may have made his proclamation in 2021, it is not yet a federal holiday with post offices, banks and federal installations closing in commemoration. But at the state level, depending on where you live, plans may be quite different.
The second Monday in October is meant as a day of reflection, at least in the context of this holiday. That reflection should be informed by the true historic accounts of what happened before, during, and after 1492. To understand Indigenous Peoples Day, it’s important to know how it and Columbus Day became part of American traditions.
New York City is thought to be the first place in America to observe Columbus Day, some 300 years after the explorer reached American shores. New York held its first observance in 1792. As Columbus Day caught on, In some places like San Francisco the day was viewed as a celebration of Italian-American heritage.
It took some time for Columbus Day to get traction in American culture. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt issued the first national observance of Columbus Day. Congress ordered October 12th as a national holiday three years following Roosevelt’s announcement, and in 1972 the holiday was finally codified as we know it now as the second Monday in October.
Columbus Day for some is a celebration of progress and global exploration. But the often-untold stories of the Columbus expeditions are appalling. History.com, for example, says of Christopher Columbus,
“On his first day in the New World, he ordered six of the natives to be seized, writing in his journal that he believed they would be good servants.” History.com also notes that Columbus had ongoing forced labor policies in his time in the “New World”. This alone is enough to make some question the suitability of celebrating Columbus Day.
Christopher Columbus did get a small amount of retribution for his actions. Multiple sources report that in the year 1500 Columbus was detained and forcibly removed from New World exploration by the Spanish Court over “mismanagement”. While Columbus did manage to return to the New World a fourth time, he was no longer allowed to govern.
Indigenous Peoples Day is an alternative holiday to Columbus Day. It is a day that acknowledges the slavery, disease, deceit, and colonialization that happened in the New World in the wake of the Columbus expeditions.
There are some Americans who would like to assume Indigenous Peoples’ Day is some kind of 20th-century American invention by “the Libs” to promote a radical political agenda related to “socialism” or a similar political boogeyman.
But the actual history of Indigenous Peoples’ Day stretches all the way back to 1977, when the idea was put forward during a United Nations conference. This alternative holiday was first proposed and presented to an international body dedicated to the global preservation of free societies.
That reality contradicts what some might think about the concept of Indigenous Peoples’ Day; that it’s a cynical effort concocted as an American political bully pulpit to promote a “radical” agenda.
It’s easy to understand the cynicism here; the challenge of having an Indigenous Peoples’ Day is that it forces people to rethink what they learned in school and how they came to believe in American history.
And that naturally creates some resistance among people who have never had their beliefs challenged. But a major rethink of history is required in light of the historic facts surrounding expeditions to the New World during the 1400s and 1500s.
As more people learn the underlying facts of history from these eras, it’s likely we’ll see growing support for Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a national holiday. And that support has been growing in places like California for some time.
The State of South Dakota would be the first to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, in 1989. Some might wonder why a traditionally more conservative state would do such a thing–but this is an indication of the very real need for such an observance.
Both North Dakota and South Dakota feature large populations of indigenous people. Changing the holiday represents a growing cultural awareness of these people, their stories, and their history.
In California Indigenous People’s Day was formally observed in Berkeley in 1992–coinciding with the 500th anniversary of Columbus arriving in the Americas in 1492. Santa Cruz adopted the holiday a couple of years later and in 2014 other locations began to follow suit.
More recently Arizona state Senator Jamescita Peshlakai co-founded the Indigenous Peoples’ Initiative, which seeks to formally replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
There is no right or wrong way to observe the holiday as long as it is observed with the idea that all Americans deserve the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That is true of the original Americans as well as immigrants and refugees from other countries who came later. It is fitting to close an article about Indigenous Peoples’ Day with another quote from President Biden’s 2021 proclamation on the second Monday in October.
“The Federal Government has a solemn obligation to lift up and invest in the future of Indigenous people and empower Tribal Nations to govern their own communities and make their own decisions.” The President urges Americans never to forget “…the centuries-long campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation, and terror wrought upon Native communities and Tribal Nations throughout our country.”
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