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The History Briefing on Indigenous Peoples Day: Why Fewer Places Celebrate Columbus Day

On October 11th, 2019, President Trump issued a Presidential Proclamation saying that the second Monday of October would be nationally celebrated as Columbus Day. President Trump reaffirmed his stance on Columbus Day on October 16th during a reception celebrating Italian heritage with Italian President, Sergio Mattarella. Trump said, “As long as I have anything to say about this — and I hope that’s gonna be a long time — it will always be Columbus Day." 

President Trump acknowledges Columbus Day because he, like many others, believe that Christopher Columbus changed history through his courageous journey across the Atlantic. His ‘drive for discovery’ exemplified what it means to be American. Trump also considers Columbus Day as time to commemorate Italian Americans because Columbus was an Italian citizen. 

However, politicians, historians, and activists remind us that Columbus' legacy might not be worth celebrating. Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas decimated Native Americans. The District of Columbia Council has recognized those effects and ordered an emergency bill changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in the District of Columbia. DC is not the first to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day – 14 other states celebrated Native Americans on the second Monday of October. The reasoning is based on history. 

First, Columbus did not discover the Americas as millions of people already lived on the continent. Second, Columbus never set foot in what is today known as United States. He first landed in the Caribbean. Upon landing on an unknown Caribbean island, Columbus ordered six natives to be enslaved. Eventually, Columbus enslaved thousands of Taino people and sent them to the Spanish island of Hispaniola.  

In response to the D.C. Council's act, The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) applauded governing body for recognizing Indigenous Peoples' Day rather than Columbus Day. The CEO of the NCAI Kevin Allis said, “This change allows the opportunity to bring more awareness to the unique, rich history of this land that is inextricably tied to the first peoples of this country and predates the voyage of Christopher Columbus”.

Similarly, Elizabeth Warren, tweeted her support for Indigenous history: “The story of America’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples is long and painful. And yet, Native communities have proven resilient. We owe them our respect—and we must honor our government's commitments and promises to them. #IndigenousPeoplesDay”.

Likewise, Jameson Sweet, the first Native American professor at Rutgers’ Department of American Studies, believes that it is unacceptable to commemorate Christopher Columbus. Sweet says that as an indigenous person he views Columbus “with the same disdain as Hitler, Stalin, or others who committed genocide”. Sweet acknowledges how Columbus Day is connected to the celebration of Italian Americans and advocates for the creation of an Italian American Heritage Day instead.

As Dr. Sarah Shear noted in an article for Smithsonian Magazine that American students are much more likely to learn Trump's account of history than Elizabeth Warren's. Often they learn a "Euro-American narrative that reinstitutes the marginalization of Indigenous cultures and knowledge. Indigenous Peoples are left in the shadows of Euro-America’s destiny, while the cooperation and conflict model provide justification for the eventual termination of Indigenous Peoples from the American landscape and historical narrative. Finally, a tone of detachment, especially with long lists of legal and political terms, dismisses the humanity of Indigenous cultures and experiences in the United States."

In contrast, Camilla Townsend, history professor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, believes that schools and the US education system will benefit not only by celebrating Columbus Day but also Indigenous Peoples Day. In an interview, Townsend says that the US should adopt Canadian ways of celebrating European and Indigenous heritage because abolishing Columbus day may actually cause more harm.  

Lastly, in a Now This News video historian Kenneth C. Davis touches upon the controversy associated with the second Monday of October. Davis says that Columbus Day had originally been meant to celebrate ‘beginnings’, ‘exploration’, and ‘discovery’, but now is seen as ‘the beginning of an era conquest and death’. Similar to Camilla Townsend, Davis concludes the video by saying, that Columbus Day is “a great opportunity to talk about the impact that one man had on history” and the impact that real history has on people. 

As Trump's statement this past week revealed, despite the increasing demands since the 1990s to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s day, the public narrative of the holiday is still contested.