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Indigenous Peoples' Day Is Gaining Traction As An American Holiday—Here's Why

Indigenous Peoples' Day Is Gaining Traction As An American Holiday—Here's Why

Sporadic regional observances of the landing of Christopher Columbus on the Taino-populated Guanahani island in what is now known as the Bahamas date back to the late 1700s.

And a number of lies and propaganda helped push the Columbus as American hero narrative for various agendas ever since the colonists' rebellion against the British Empire.

But the first official Columbus Day as a United States federal holiday wasn't until 1971.

In 1966, Mariano Lucca of Buffalo, New York founded the National Columbus Day Committee and lobbied to make it a federal holiday. Legislation to create Columbus Day was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on June 28, 1968 with an effective date of 1971.

Almost immediately after that first observance in 1971, issues with a celebration of the Genoa-born, Spanish-sponsored lost explorer drew criticism.

Columbus' own ship's logs and historical accounts from the period outlined a reign of torture, rape, sexual exploitation of minors, murder and human trafficking. Columbus and his men were credited with the deaths of between 7-10 million Indigenous people in the Caribbean and coastal Central and South America.

And there was the matter of Columbus' never setting foot in the United States and his questionable designation as the first European to reach the Western Hemisphere.

The Norse colonized northeastern North America around 500 years before Columbus, with some degree of contact with Europe maintained until about 1410. The discovery at L'Anse aux Meadows partially corroborated accounts in Icelandic sagas of Erik the Red's colonization of Greenland and his son Leif Erikson's exploration of Vinland—northeastern Canada and New England—at the turn of the 11th century.

By the 1990s, increased awareness of Columbus' genocide and the debunking of the myths of his accomplishments lead to many educational institutions, municipal and state governments exploring abolishing or reenvisioning the October holiday.

Many turned to a recognition of the original history of the Western Hemisphere, looking to the Indigenous peoples instead of viewing the continents through a European lens.

But growing recognition and celebration of Indigenous Peoples' Day also represents a concerted, decades-long effort to recognize the role of Indigenous people in United States history.

In the 1980s, Colorado's American Indian Movement (AIM) chapter began protesting Columbus Day. In 1989, Indigenous-led activists in South Dakota persuaded that state to replace Columbus Day with Native American Day.

Then, in 1992 while people reexamined Columbus on the 500th anniversary of his first voyage, Indigenous people in Berkeley, California organized the first "Indigenous Peoples' Day." The City Council formally adopted the observance.

Towns, cities, and states across the country began to follow their lead.

Baley Champagne—tribal citizen of the United Houma Nation who was instrumental in getting Louisiana to adopt Indigenous Peoples' Day—said:

"It's become a trend."
"It's about celebrating people instead of thinking about somebody who actually caused genocide on a population or tried to cause the genocide of an entire population."
"By bringing Indigenous Peoples' Day, we're bringing awareness that we're not going to allow someone like that to be glorified into a hero, because of the hurt that he caused to Indigenous people of America."

The United Nations adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007 also became a factor.

Thirty years earlier at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas conference to promote Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, they recommended the world "observe October 12, the day of so-called 'discovery' of America, as an International Day of Solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas."

A general increase in visibility and awareness of Indigenous people because of social media has also played a role.

The Idle No More movement in Canada and the Standing Rock water protectors in the Dakotas both utilized social media to organize and raise awareness.

Since then, efforts like Change the Name—an effort to eliminate racism in sports' mascots—have had an impact beyond Indian Country.

After years of stating the name would never change, the racial slur moniker of the Washington NFL football team was dropped in 2020.

The Cleveland MLB baseball team followed suit in 2021, adopting the name Cleveland Guardians.

Efforts to recognize the history and contributions of Indigenous peoples have extended beyond grassroots efforts to mainstream media and culture.

Vocal allies like Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio, Taika Waititi, George Takei, and Bette Midler have lifted up Indigenous voices, raising awareness for environmental efforts, education, and truth and reconciliation.

With increased visibility, also came increased mainstream representation.

Both Peacock and FX on Hulu introduced series with Indigenous casts and writers in 2021.

On Peacock, Rutherford Falls shows modern, contemporary Natives which cast member Michael Greyeyes—Cree—appreciates.

On FX on Hulu's Reservation Dogs, Indigenous series' creators Sterlin Harjo—Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and Muscogee—and Taika Waititi—Māori—give a vision of growing up on a reservation and the effect of Indigenous culture melding with mainstream pop culture on a group of Indigenous teens.

Reservation Dogs has the most Indigenous representation in both the cast, crew and writers' room of any mainstream United States' TV project.

And for the first time, the United States is addressing the legacy of mandatory government-sponsored boarding schools.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland shared the announcement on Twitter.

Secretary Haaland—Laguna Pueblo—is the first Indigenous cabinet secretary. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is part of Haaland's Department of the Interior.

According to The Smithsonian, states officially observing Indigenous Peoples' Day in 2021 include Alabama, Virginia, Maine, New Mexico, Vermont, Alaska, Oregon, Iowa, Louisiana, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

South Dakota still celebrates Native Americans' Day and Hawaii also observes Discoverers' Day in honor of the Polynesian navigators who peopled the islands.

Many college campuses also recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day as do more than 100 cities, towns and counties across the United States.

And on September 8, 2021, President Joe Biden became the first United States President to recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day with an official presidential proclamation.

There's no known comprehensive list of all the places that switched from celebrating Christopher Columbus to recognizing the contributions of Indigenous peoples. But the benefits of increased visibility are being felt across Indian Country.

If your area doesn't yet recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day, Illuminative offers a guide to making it happen.