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How Columbus Day Slowly Turned Into Indigenous People’s Day, And Why It’s About Time

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Last Friday, President Joe Biden recognized the second Monday of October as Indigenous People’s Day. This is the first time an American president has recognized the day—a day that has for decades been known as Columbus Day—as Indigenous People’s Day.

Biden’s announcement isn’t altogether surprising. After years of mounting resentments towards Christopher Columbus, Americans have become less willing to celebrate a man who was responsible for mass genocide.

Now, with the advent of the holiday changing from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, people are wondering at the origins of Columbus Day in the first place. Here is a breakdown of the history of both Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day.

The first Columbus Day celebration took place on October 12, 1792, by the Tammany Society—a powerful political organization based in New York City.

As the years passed and anti-Italian sentiment grew in the U.S., many Italian-American groups and activists upheld Christopher Columbus as both an Italian hero and a quintessential part of American history. They believed that, if the government officially recognized Columbus’s contribution to American history, prejudice against Italian Americans would diminish.

Columbus Day became a national holiday in 1934 and officially became a federal holiday in 1971. But, from the beginning, people had problems with Columbus Day. Critics condemned Columbus for his cruelty—behavior that was well-known and shocking even by contemporary standards.

In 1892, Baptist Minister R. S. MacArthur made the front page of The New York Times for calling Columbus “cruel, and guilty of many crimes.” In the 1990s, the distaste for Columbus Day truly took hold of the mainstream consciousness. “We were here first,” Indigenous activist Ray Geer told The New York Times in 1991. “We find the notion that Columbus discovered us extremely distasteful.”

Flash forward to present day, and the colonization of the Americas is definitely no longer celebrated like it once was. When people think of Christopher Columbus, they think of a cold-blooded colonizer who committed genocide.

In 2006, new historical documents surfaced that revealed that Christopher Columbus was widely known as a violent and brutal character even by the standards of the 1400s. Spanish royalty buried a document detailing the atrocities he subjected indigenous people to because they were “worried by growing rumors of Columbus’ barbarity and avarice.”

A document written by investigators for the Spanish Crown detailed the horrific atrocities that Columbus inflicted on the Indigenous people of Hispaniola. The document describes mutilation, torture, rape, slavery and a myriad of other horrifying acts. As Spanish historian Consuelo Varela explained to The Guardian: “Even those who loved him had to admit the atrocities that had taken place.”

Now, social justice activists have taken Columbus Day as an opportunity to celebrate the lives, culture, and history of Indigenous peoples.

The first Indigenous People’s Day was celebrated in Berkeley, California, in 1992 as a sort of counter-holiday to Columbus Day.

Since then, hundreds of cities across the United States have formally or informally recognized the second Monday of October as Indigenous People’s Day. In addition, states Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and certain parts of California (like LA County) do not recognize Columbus Day as a national holiday.

While we can never right the wrongs of our country’s past, we can do everything in our power now to recognize the hardships of the marginalized people that our country has been complicit in oppressing. Indigenous People’s Day may not fix the past, but at least it’s acknowledging it.

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