The Long Struggle for Indigenous Peoples' Day

Posted by Kaitlin Smith on October 9, 2020

Native Nations Rise March in Washington, D.C. in 2017

For an increasing number of communities around the United States, October 12th is Indigenous Peoples’ Day—a holiday dedicated to highlighting the cultures and suppressed histories of indigenous peoples. This holiday emerged in an explicit challenge to the narratives that undergird Columbus Day—the federal holiday on the same date used to celebrate Christopher Columbus’ purported “discovery of America.” Columbus is among the historical figures denounced this year as a growing movement continues to surface the interconnected legacies of racism and colonialism in the United States. However, indigenous peoples have been calling for a reexamination of how we narrate our nation’s founding for decades through efforts including the campaign for an Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first proposed in 1977 by a delegation of Native nations to the UN-sponsored Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas where the resolution was subsequently passed. But only seven years later, the U.S. Congress would announce plans to hold a national “Quincentenary Jubilee” in honor of Columbus’ arrival in 1992. The occasion was to feature life-size replicas of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María making a 20-city tour beginning in Miami and culminating in an auspicious landing in San Francisco where Jubliee festivities were to commence in full. For indigenous leaders, the proposed spectacle recalled a painful historical chapter and reinforced the notion thateven in the modern United Statesindigenous lives and accounts of history simply didn’t matter. 

Far from an unoccupied landmass, the Americas that Columbus reached in 1492 were populated by millions of indigenous peoples, and the agenda he executed upon arrival subjected them to slavery, mass rape, and outright genocide. Though Columbus never set foot on what is now the United States, he would be placed at the center of a national mythology that took shape during the American Revolution and solidified in the 19th Century as the project of westward expansion swept the nation, decimating indigenous populations in its wake. Despite the incalculable losses they sustained through centuries of violence and erasure, descendants of the indigenous people who survived are still here. They are refusing to allow this history to be forgotten and are calling for a retelling that exposes colonial violence and centers indigenous experiences.

In 1990, indigenous leaders convened the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance, or “Encuentro.” There, elders voted unanimously to make Columbus Day 1992 an opportunity to advance the collective goals of indigenous peoples. And after the Bay Area-based leaders returned from this and parallel organizing conferences, they would form Resistance 500a broad coalition focused on planning local, indigenous-led activities intended to counter the Quincentenary Jubilee. But when the primary corporate sponsor of the Jubilee suddenly pulled out, the committee at the helm of the celebration was forced to raise millions of dollars. And thanks to the tireless efforts of Resistance 500, the committee’s fundraising efforts failed and the event was canceled. But the fruits of the Resistance 500 activists’ labor did not end here.

Originally called upon to help inform the roster of local activities to be held during the Jubilee, the Berkeley Resistance 500 Task Force would provide the Berkeley City Council with evidence that Columbus’ expedition was a deliberate act of violent conquest—and their presentation was so compelling that the city council then agreed to begin celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. In time, the tireless agitation of indigenous activists would lead other cities and states to recognize the holiday.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day Massachusetts explains the continuing urgency of this movement: 

Not only is it important to reject the celebration of colonialism in the form of ‘Columbus Day,’ but it’s also important to celebrate and recognize the accomplishments of Indigenous Peoples despite [the] seemingly insurmountable obstacles… Indigenous Peoples are so often erased in society, that many forget Indigenous peoples still exist. For this reason, it’s important to begin to undo some of the harm done through this holiday, and to correct the false histories that have been inscribed.”

Recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been formalized in Alaska, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia, along with a number of U.S. cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Dallas. And now, many public school districts are also honoring Indigenous Peoples’ Day, too. 

Whether you take action to demand that your community adopts Indigenous Peoples’ Dayas this group of middle schoolers did—or engage in another act of solidarity, it is never too late to start reconciling the way we tell history with the painful truths that line our past. It is only in doing this work that we can rise to the challenge of shaping a more perfect union.

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Facing History invites educators to use our Confronting History, Transforming Monuments Teaching Idea which considers the power of symbols; the role of public spaces; and themes of voice, agency, solidarity, and joy in the face of injustice.

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Pictured above: Native Nations Rise March in Washington, D.C. in 2017 (Credit: Indianz.com)

Topics: American History, Indigenous History, Native Americans

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