Christopher Columbus is credited with "discovering" America (Credit: Dióscoro Puebla/ Colección, Museo del Prado/ Public Domain)

Columbus Day is celebrated annually on the second Monday of October. It marks Christopher Columbus's arrival to the Americas. However, the US federal holiday, which will be observed on October 9 this year, has always been controversial.

Who was Christopher Columbus?

Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. He began sailing at the age of 14 and participated in many trading trips around Europe. In 1485, the Italian explorer went to Spain to obtain funding to explore Asia and bring back gold, spices, and silk. He also wanted to spread Christianity to the region. It took him eight years to convince the Spanish monarchs to pay for the expedition.

Vintage 1892 U.S. stamp commemorating Columbus's voyage (Credit: USPS/ Public Domain)

On August 3, 1492, Columbus left Spain with three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Five weeks later, on October 12, 1492, the sailors saw a small island. However, it was not in East Asia. Instead, the Italians had reached what is now known as San Salvador in the Bahamas. Their subsequent voyages took them further south to Central and South America. In the ensuing years, Columbus was credited with discovering the Americas.

The holiday

Columbus Day was declared a national holiday in 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt. The original date of the holiday was October 12th. However, in 1971, it was changed to the second Monday of the month to give Americans a three-day weekend.

The controversy

The federal holiday was met with mixed feelings. Historians argued that Columbus did not "discover" the continent. The indigenous people had been living in the Americas long before his arrival. He was also not the first European to reach North America. Norse explorer Leif Erikson established a European settlement in Greenland in AD 980. This was nearly 500 years before Columbus's arrival.

More importantly, the Italian explorer and his crew mistreated the locals, using violence to get what they wanted. They also forced the natives to convert to Christianity and introduced new diseases that wiped out entire communities.

Some US states, like Oregon, Iowa, and Nebraska, never recognized Columbus Day. In 1971, Hawaii renamed it "Discoverers' Day" to honor the state's Polynesian founders. In 1990, South Dakota began celebrating the holiday as "Native American Day." As public awareness of Columbus's treatment of the locals increased, many US schools and universities also stopped observing the holiday.

Indigenous Peoples' Day

Many states have renamed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day (Credit: Public Domain)

In 1977, a delegation of Native nations proposed renaming the holiday to "Indigenous Peoples' Day." They believed the change would help honor the victims of American colonization. The resolution, suggested at a conference dedicated to racial discrimination, passed with an overwhelming majority.

Berkeley, CA, was the first city to make the change in 1992. Santa Cruz, CA, followed shortly after in 1994. Since then, many states, including Alaska, Oregon, California, Iowa, Louisiana, and North Carolina, have adopted Indigenous Peoples' Day.

In 2021, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples' Day. It encourages Americans to celebrate the holiday on the second Monday in October with appropriate ceremonies and activities.

Many US states now call the holiday Indigenous Peoples' Day (Credit: Pew Research/ CC-BY-SA-2.0)

But not everyone thinks a name change is necessary. For Italian Americans, Columbus Day is the centerpiece of Italian Heritage Month, celebrated every October. They argue that the holiday honors the history of immigration, not the explorer. They believe the name should be retained or changed to something more appropriate, like Italian Heritage Day.

What do you think? Be sure to let us know by adding your comments below.