Movement to ditch Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day in U.S. is growing, but is it enough?
First Nation's Focus
“Everybody knows that it’s wrong,” Laurie Thom, chairwoman of the Yerington Paiute Tribe, says wearily. “Why do we still continue to teach lies to our children all across the nation?”
Thom is referring to the U.S. federal holiday of Columbus Day, which honors 15th-century Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who is credited for discovering America in 1492.
What is not taught in schools, however, is the fact that Native Americans — the first inhabitants of the land that later became the United States of America — were displaced and decimated after Columbus and other European explorers reached the continent. Columbus called the indigenous peoples’ “Indians” because he mistakenly thought he had arrived in the “Indies,” the islands of Southeast Asia.
“It’s a shame to celebrate somebody that did so much harm to the Indigenous peoples here,” Thom said of Columbus. “This land was inhabited; he didn’t discover it, and that’s a key message I think we need to send across the nation.”
Thom is not alone in her feelings. In fact, a growing number of cities and states opt to celebrate an alternative to Columbus Day, one that recognizes the history and contributions of Native Americans: Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“It’s a day to honor those that lost their lives over the land grabs and atrocities that were created when Columbus arrived,” Thom said. “And to honor those continuing to stay committed to promoting our causes and our issues for our Indigenous people. And not just in the United States, across the world.”
A MOVEMENT FOR CHANGE
For decades, Native American activists have advocated for abolishing Columbus Day (this year it will be observed Oct. 14), which became a federal holiday in 1934.
It wasn’t until 1992 when Berkeley, Calif., became the first city in the country to formally recognize a new holiday challenging the narrative that Columbus “discovered” America.
Herman Fillmore, cultural/language resources director for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, said Columbus Day celebrates “a really awful person” and the “winners’” history while leaving out the dehumanization of Indigenous peoples.
“When we’re fed the narrative from the winners’ history it belittles our communities,” he said. “We’re always placed as ‘the lesser’ in this hierarchy of colonization or civilization — almost like (people think) we deserved the things that were done to us when that’s not true at all. We had very strong communities with strong values.
“Just because we weren’t the ones with technology to go and kill and massacre people, that doesn’t mean that our stories don’t deserve to be told.”
In efforts to rectify that history, at least eight states and 130 cities and towns have renamed the controversial holiday, according to a New York Times report in April.
This year alone, Maine, New Mexico and Vermont passed bills abolishing Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Other states that have made the shift include North Carolina, Alaska, Oregon, Minnesota, and South Dakota, which calls it Native American Day. Even Columbus, Ohio, stopped observing the holiday in 2018.
In recent years, three universities have switched to celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, according to TIME. These include Brown University, University of Utah, and Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Zooming in on the region, South Lake Tahoe in June became the most recent city to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. According to previous reports, approval of the change came a little more than 14 months after the previous city council failed to take action on a nearly identical proposal.
West of the region, Los Angeles County and at least eight California cities observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
While Fillmore said the movement to ditch Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is encouraging, he wonders what is actually being done other than changing the day’s name.
“How many of these cities and states are actually investing in Indigenous people?” he said. “What are they actually doing to help solve other systemic problems and impacts that are the result of colonization?”
In Nevada, the state has officially celebrated Indigenous People’s Day since 2017. However, the day falls on Aug. 9 each year, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples — meaning, the second Monday of October remains Columbus Day.
Nevada is one of a handful of states that have tried to honor Native Americans without dropping the original holiday.
Amber Torres, chairwoman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said it is a “slap in the face” to all Indigenous peoples and a “huge travesty” to continue to celebrate Columbus Day in Nevada and anywhere else.
“You’ve got 27 tribes in Nevada,” Torres said. “Nevada should be following suit and introduce (abolishing Columbus Day) as a formal apology to Native American tribes. That would be the right thing to do.”
Still, Torres said that “wouldn’t take away the historical trauma.”
“But it would build a good partnership with the state to show tribes that they truly have their support,” she continued. “That they recognize that we are still here. They know it was a travesty that happened way in the past, but they have the ability to make it right.”
Refocusing on the education system, Thom said the inaccurate history being taught every day in classrooms is only perpetuating the lies that Columbus Day is built upon.
“It’s hard to send our kids to school knowing the history,” she said. “And you’re sitting there in a classroom as an Indigenous person and you realize you’re just reading lies. Why do we continue to do that as a country?
“Once we rewrite history, the healing can start to begin.”
With the Nevada Indian Commission’s offices located on the Stewart Indian School campus, Stacey Montooth is reminded every day of the culture and lands she is working to preserve and the welfare of her people she is striving to improve.