Native American Day is celebrated in at least eight different states in lieu of Columbus Day, which has fallen on the second Monday in October since being ordained a federal holiday in 1968. By contrast, Native American Day is observed on the fourth Friday of September in California and Nevada, and the second Monday of October in South Dakota and Wisconsin. The holiday is also known in other regions as Indigenous Peoples’ Day and First Peoples’ Day.

The history of Native American Day, as an alternative to Columbus day, originated in South Dakota in the late 1980s. Governor George Mickelson proposed this holiday to seek “reconciliation” between Native American and white groups. It was passed unanimously by South Dakota’s legislature, and the observance has since spread to multiple states, university campuses, and more than 130 cities in the US.

2020 is particularly apt year for groups to observe Native American Day. Like other communities of color, Native communities are over-represented in terms of contracting the novel Coronavirus, when compared to the total population at large. A July 30 article in The New York Times, for example, notes how Native American and Alaska Native people account for 40 percent of virus cases in New Mexico, while only accounting for 9 percent of the total population. The article notes how a confluence of factors, including crowded housing conditions and underfunded public health systems, have compounded this crisis.

Elsewhere, Native American political groups have enjoyed landmark legislative victories this year. In a 5-to-4 decision on July 9, the Supreme Court of the United States held that Muscogee (Creek) land in the state of Oklahoma would remain a reservation, and therefore, classified as Indian Land. In another victory, a federal court in the state of South Dakota ruled that the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil route that ran between the state and Illinois over Standing Rock Sioux Tribe land, must be shut down pending further scientific review.

The growing call for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death has also brought greater levels of political awareness to the use of Anti-Native monikers in popular culture. On July 13th, Dan Synder and Coach Rivera announced that the Washington Football Team would drop the official title of “Redskins”, a decision that comes on the heels of decades of lobbying by Native Activists since the 1970s.

This holiday provides an opportunity for groups to acknowledge the tribal land on which they stand and to educate themselves about the Native American groups that originally settled this land. When observing, it is important to heed the interracial differences amongst specific Native American groups and not to assume monolithic or shared cultural values.

About the Author

David Sanchez-Aguilera is a Human Resources Coordinator at PuzzleHR. He holds a master’s degree in Critical Race and Ethnicity studies from the University of California, San Diego and is committed to using this knowledge to make workplaces more inclusive spaces. On his downtime, David enjoys rock-climbing and listening to podcasts.

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