The Teokalli Aztec Dancers perform during the 3rd annual Indigenous Peoples Day commemoration at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco on Oct. 11, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Last week, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, D-California, joined senators from New Mexico and California who are introducing legislation to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples Day as a public holiday. The bill [PDF download] would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in all federal laws and regulations.
Long before this year, the residents of Berkeley, California, played an important role locally in calling for a similar change. In 1992, just weeks before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival, local Native American leaders persuaded Berkeley's City Council to get rid of Columbus Day and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead.
It's an idea that's since gained broad support. These days, 13 states and over 100 cities have recognized Indigenous Peoples Day, and in 2019 and 2020 Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a proclamation declaring Indigenous Peoples Day the second Monday in October, long celebrated as Columbus Day. However, the state of California does not recognize Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day as a holiday.
“It is long past time that we formally recognize and commemorate the contributions of Indigenous people throughout the country,” said Padilla in a press release. “As our nation continues to reflect and reckon with our past, this legislation is a small step towards honoring the resilience and recognizing the trauma of Indigenous people.”
Supported by the Indigenous Peoples' Day Initiative, the legislation is a joint effort from several organizations including the National Council of Urban Indian Health, the National Congress of American Indians, the Association of American Indian Affairs, the Navajo Nation, and the All Pueblo Council of Governors.
“If the United States chooses to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day, we acknowledge a history marked by broken promises, violence, and deprivation," said Dylan O. Baca, president of the Indigenous Peoples’ Initiative. But Baca also sees the acknowledgment as part of creating a future of mutual respect. “It is the hope of my community that this day will help alleviate the effects of oppression and work to create future generations who understand the importance of our shared experiences,” he said in a statement.
But activists, including members of Native American tribes, said ending the formal holiday in Columbus’s name has been stymied by politicians and organizations focusing on Italian American heritage.
“The opposition has tried to paint Columbus as a benevolent man, similar to how white supremacists have painted Robert E. Lee,” Les Begay, Diné Nation member and co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition of Illinois, said, referring to the Civil War general who led the Confederate Army.
Columbus’s arrival began centuries of exploration and colonization by European nations, bringing violence, disease and other suffering to Indigenous people already living in the Western Hemisphere.
“Not honoring Indigenous peoples on this day just continues to erase our history, our contributions and the fact that we were the first inhabitants of this country,” Begay said.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement that he believes the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day would provide young Navajo children with a sense of pride.
First-ever presidential proclamation on Indigenous Peoples Day
On Oct. 8, President Joe Biden issued a presidential "Proclamation on Indigenous Peoples' Day," providing a significant boost to efforts aimed at refocusing the federal holiday honoring Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Indigenous peoples.
The day will be observed on Oct. 11, along with Columbus Day.
“For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures,” Biden wrote in the Indigenous Peoples Day proclamation. “Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”
In a separate proclamation on Columbus Day, Biden praised the role of Italian Americans in U.S. society, but also referenced the violence and harm Columbus and other explorers caused.
Making landfall in what is now the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492, Columbus, an Italian, was the first of a wave of European explorers who decimated Indigenous populations in the Americas in quests for gold and other commodities, including people to enslave.
“Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities,” Biden wrote. “It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden “felt strongly” about recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. Asked if Biden might seek to end marking Columbus Day as a federal holiday, she replied, “I don’t have any predictions at this point.”
John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, said the president’s decision to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day was an important step.
“Big changes happen from each small step, and we hope this administration intends to continue making positive steps towards shaping a brighter future for all citizens,” Echohawk said.
Biden made the announcement on the same day the White House was disclosing its plans to restore territory to two sprawling national monuments in Utah that former President Donald Trump had stripped of protections.
“Every opportunity we have to share the truth of our collective histories gives all of us a stronger foundation from which to build a true representative democracy,” said Shannon O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and chief executive and attorney at the Association on American Indian Affairs. “We cannot know the truth without first acknowledging the original — and continuing — caretakers of this Turtle Island.”