Christopher Columbus has had a rough go of it lately, with several statues of Christopher Columbus not making it through the summer. They were removed by either lawmakers or protestors who recognized that valorizing Columbus through publicly funded statues denigrates the memory the millions of indigenous peoples already living in the Americas when he arrived. For many critics, the existence of the statue signals at most, tacit support for imperialist and racist enslavement, rape, and murder perpetrated by Columbus and his compatriots, and the least, a disregard for how Native Americans among us remember the historical figure. For many years at this point, Native activists and allies have wanted to move away from valorizing the figure and move toward focusing on the communities and civilizations that lived and thrived in the United States before his arrival.
That same energy lies behind the movement to make the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. This is not that radical, or new: the idea for Indigenous Peoples’ Day came from a 1979 UN conference, and South Dakota became the first U.S. state to recognize the day in 1989.
Today, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, and Vermont officially celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington, DC, do so by proclamation, which typically means state offices are open instead of closed.
Two states, Alabama and Oklahoma, celebrate both holidays. More than 130 cities also observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day alongside or instead of Columbus Day. Berkeley, California, was the first when it adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage.
Columbus Day in the United States likely began in 1792 in New York and Boston when the Tammany Society and the Massachusetts Historical Society, respectively, celebrated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. Columbus, a native Genoan, eventually became a symbol of Italian-American pride. Under pressure from the Knights of Columbus, President Franklin Roosevelt issued a proclamation designating October 12, 1934, as a day celebrating Columbus. Columbus Day became an annual, official federal holiday in 1968. It took only 11 years after it was declared a federal holiday for the United Nations to recommend changing the day to celebrate Native people, making the inevitability of the maintenance of the day seem not so inevitable after all.
The only people who seem passionate about preserving Columbus Day are the Italian-American groups that inspired what’s commonly considered the worst episode of The Sopranos and President Trump, who blames the anti-Columbus movement on “radical activists” who “seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities and his achievements with transgressions.”
Whether or not that’s enough to save Columbus Day is an open question, but it’s clear that mounting pressure to address the injustices of American society means it’s more likely than ever that Columbus Day’s days are numbered. Given that the movement has been active for quite some time, and the removal of statues of him over the summer began to pick up and the conversation about his true legacy is far more mainstream than it once was, it could be that sooner, rather than later, the entire United States honors Indigenous people on the second Monday in October every year.
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