Traditions that “appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented,” noted the late famed British historian Eric Hobsbawm. Hobsbawm was writing primarily about Great Britain and Europe, but the same process plays out in the United States as well. The first expedition of Christopher Columbus to the Americas landed in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. But the United States did not celebrate Columbus Day as a federal holiday until more than a century-and-a-half after the nation’s independence, in 1937.
A big part of the reason why Columbus Day became a holiday involved the lobbying efforts of Italian Americans, who faced widespread discrimination in the early twentieth century. A 1911 federal task force called the Dillingham Commission issued a 41-volume report that claimed, among other calumnies, that criminality was “inherent in the Italian race.”
Columbus is widely believed to be from the Italian port city of Genoa (even if some scholarship disputes this), so when Italian Americans gained political power, they successfully advocated for the holiday. In most cities where Columbus Day parades persist today, these are less about Columbus, the person, than Italian-American heritage. In the New York Times, Christina Caron quotes one Italian American professor who condemns the genocidal acts of Columbus but avers, “Columbus as a mythical figure is a completely different thing.”
Still, the facts regarding Columbus the person and the genocide he initiated are impossible to ignore. The holiday, while helping Italian Americans become white, did so at the expense of American Indians. “The man who discovered America for Europe routinely tortured slaves and starved his subjects in colonies on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola,” writes Graham Kelly of the Independent. Roberto Borrero, the president of the United Confederation of Taíno People, tells Caron, “For us, the bottom line is Columbus Day is just a celebration of genocide.” More than 85 percent of an estimated three million Taíno inhabitants of the Caribbean had died due to a combination of Spanish violence and disease (especially smallpox) by the early 1500s.
The emerging tradition of Indigenous People’s Day began to gain ground in the early 1990s. South Dakota became the first state in the nation to establish Native Americans’ Day in 1990. Berkeley, California chose on the 500th anniversary of the landing of Columbus in 1992 to declare Indigenous People’s Day as a holiday. As Jourdan Bennett-Begaye writes in Indian Country Today, now “60 cities (and counting), four states (Minnesota, Vermont, Alaska, and South Dakota) and many college and university campuses officially [have] declared the second Monday of October as Indigenous People’s Day.” Cities making the switch in 2018 include Tacoma, Washington; Rochester, New York; and San Francisco, California. Last year, Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Los Angeles County, California’s most populous county, all added the holiday. The Cherokee nation has also adopted Indigenous People’s Day as its own national holiday.
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Writing in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Ronnie Pollack, executive director of the city’s Native American Cultural Center, explains the significance of the new holiday:
Sadly, what is taught from an historical and current perspective is that we, Native Americans, are no longer here. We are often spoken of in the past tense. We have been invisible far too long on our own land…
It is important for truth to be taught.…Mistruths are hurtful; however, righting wrongs is movement towards healing. Healing is imperative to our traditions. We believe that without healing, inclusive of forgiveness, you cannot achieve wholeness.