The second Monday of October isn’t just the start of another week, as it affords Americans of different backgrounds the opportunity to celebrate their collective heritages. The day, typically marked as the federal holiday of Columbus Day, is also being recognized more and more as Indigenous Peoples Day by cities and states across the nation. Because the two holidays share a calendar date many have been led to ask, why choose to celebrate one over the other, and is it possible to celebrate both?
Columbus Day was originally established in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a celebration of Italian-Americans and to mark the arrival of Christopher Columbus to what is now known as the Americas. But the portrayal of Columbus as a brave adventurer and discoverer presents a one-dimensional and inaccurate version of history. Critics of Columbus Day point out that Christopher Columbus did not discover America, as Native Americans were already living and flourishing in the area. In fact, Columbus wasn’t even the first European to arrive in the Americas; the Vikings and Leif Erikson had him beat by hundreds of years. Further, Columbus paved the way for European colonialism in the Americas, bringing with it the international slavery trade and disease.
Rather than celebrate a man with a complicated historical legacy, many cities and states have chosen to instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. Berkeley, California was the first city to officially recognize the holiday in 1992 (the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s arrival), and dozens of cities have followed suit, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Austin, Texas to name a few. Several states do not observe Columbus Day altogether, including Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota. The United Nations even followed suit in 1994 by declaring an International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, celebrated August 9. The purpose of these holidays is to recognize and celebrate the Native American tribes of the United States, each of them its own sovereign nation that existed long before Columbus made landfall.
When governments and those in positions of power choose to celebrate Columbus Day without acknowledging the complicated history surrounding it, a distorted view of events can get presented as factual and objective. In turn, this can cause Native Americans and those of indigenous heritage to feel unseen, or as if both the achievements and the sufferings endured by their ancestors don’t have a place in the story of America. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. Indigenous Peoples Day is in no way meant to detract from recognizing Italian-Americans or their impact on our society. Rather, it serves as a celebration of all peoples and cultures that contribute to the vibrant tapestry that is our shared American story.
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