First Landing of Christopher Columbus in America (Photo Credit: Dióscoro Puebla [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Columbus Day has been a fixture on American calendars since 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared October 12 a federal holiday to honor the Italian explorer who “discovered” the Americas in 1492. However, the holiday, whose date has since been changed to the second Monday of October, has always been somewhat controversial. Many people believe that Christopher Columbus should not be given credit for “discovering” the continent, since Native Americans had already been residing there for generations.

However, the more significant issue stems from the fact that the explorer’s mission was not a scientific “voyage of discovery,” but one geared to conquer and colonize the new land. Critics maintain that the Spanish army Columbus brought on his second voyage, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people. Those that survived the massacre were enslaved and put to work in mines and plantations. Many, therefore, believe that the explorer’s arrival should not be celebrated.

South Dakota has always dubbed the holiday “Native American Day,” while Hawaii has celebrated it as Discoverers' Day” in honor of the state’s Polynesian founders. Over the years, the popularity of Columbus Day has tapered off in other states as well, with only 23 listing it as an approved holiday. Numerous schools and universities have also stopped commemorating the event. In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that Columbus Day was one of the most inconsistently celebrated U.S. holidays.

Photo Credit:

Regardless of whether it was observed, the day still paid homage to the Spanish explorer. To change that, in 1977, a delegation of Native nations at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, proposed renaming the holiday to “Indigenous Peoples Day.” The resolution passed with an overwhelming majority.

However, convincing the rest of the country to do the same was not that easy. It took 15 years before the city of Berkeley in California adopted the name in 1992 and began celebrating the day with a Native American festival, and then 22 more years before Minneapolis, MN and Seattle, WA did the same in 2014. The following year, eight more cities including Albuquerque, NM and Portland, OR, began celebrating the second Monday of October as “Indigenous Peoples Day.” The movement really started to gain momentum in 2016 when 19 cities, including Boulder, CO and Phoenix, AZ, three universities, as well as the states of Minnesota and Vermont, all decided to rename the day to honor Native Americans. In 2017, 21 more cities, including Austin, TX and Los Angeles, CA have made the shift.

Larger number of cities move to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day (photo Credit: DYLAN PETROHILOS/Think

Many Latin American countries are also moving away from the name “Dia de la Raza,” or “Day of the Race.” The holiday, which commemorated the anniversary of the Italian explorer’s arrival in the New World, was never meant to honor Columbus, but rather the people and the cultural influences he brought. However, to many, it serves as a reminder of not just the past, but also the current struggles of the indigenous population who continue to suffer racial discrimination. To recognize their plight, Venezuela changed its holiday to “Day of the Indigenous Resistance” in 2002. Nicaragua adopted the same name soon after. Argentina has renamed the holiday, “Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity,” while Chile changed it to “Día del Descubrimiento de Dos Mundos,” or “Day of the Encounter Between the Two Worlds.”

However, not everyone is happy at this turn of events. For many Italian-Americans, Columbus Day is the focal point of Italian Heritage Month celebrated throughout October. But Native American photojournalist Cliff Matias who has been leading the charge to make the change, argues that it is not so much an "Anti-Columbus Day but a celebration of indigenous peoples’ culture.”

With the increasingly larger number of cities moving away from Columbus Day each year, it will be interesting to see if “Indigenous People's Day” gets federal recognition. Meanwhile, it will continue to be the focal point of debates throughout the Americas.