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How Berkeley Became the First City to Ditch Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples Day

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Festivities at Berkeley's Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow include traditional dancing. (Christopher Burquez)

Updated Monday, Oct. 14, 2019

Indigenous Peoples Day, the holiday that celebrates Native American culture and its people, celebrated its 27th anniversary in Berkeley on Saturday. It's also the holiday that began as a Bay Area counterprotest to Columbus Day.

Here’s how it happened: In the 1980s, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan created the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission. Its job was to come up with a grand celebration to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas.

The plan was for replicas of Columbus’ three ships to sail along the East Coast and then over to California.

“They were going to go into the Panama Canal, and sail into the San Francisco Bay as part of this national hoopla,” says John Curl, Berkeley resident and one of the organizers of the first Indigenous Peoples Day.


Curl says this idea of having the Bay Area as the centerpiece of Columbus Day celebrations did not sit well with him and a lot of native people. So they formed a group to counterprotest the jubilee. They called themselves Resistance 500.

“The Bay Area is a pretty progressive place and we did not want to be the center of a national celebration of imperialism and colonialism and genocide,” Curl says. “We tried to turn it into something different, something positive.”

That's exactly what they did. In 1992, just weeks before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival, Curl and other native leaders convinced Berkeley's City Council to get rid of Columbus Day and instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.

When the group asked the city to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day in 1992, then-Mayor Loni Hancock said it was the first time she understood the negative impact of this holiday on Indigenous people.

"We had to think about what is this holiday about and who discovered America and how really profoundly disrespectful it was to say that a European explorer who never actually set foot on the continent did that," Hancock recently told NPR's Morning Edition. "Discounting the Indigenous people who had lived here for centuries with very sophisticated cultures and pretty much in harmony with the earth."

"Certainly the hundreds and thousands of Italian immigrants who came over in steerage class on the boats at the turn of the 19th century endured a lot of hardships to get here," she added. "But the discovery of America is something where you want to get your history right.

On Oct. 12, 1992, Berkeley became the first official city in the U.S. to celebrate the holiday.

Now, 25 years later, several other cities have followed suit, including Seattle, Austin and Los Angeles.

“All we did was plant the seeds for this, and we’ve just tended to it for over 20 years,” Curl says.

And if you’re wondering what happened to the grand Columbus Day celebration that was planned to end in San Francisco Bay, that ship never sailed.

Berkeley celebrated its 27th annual Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow on Saturday, Oct. 12.

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