Goodbye Columbus — Hello Indigenous Peoples Day

By: Dave Roos  | 

American Indians
Indigenous Peoples Day honors the history of the continent's original inhabitants as well as the living culture of modern Native Americans. Library of Congress/Getty Images

Accused of crimes ranging from slave-trading to genocide of indigenous peoples, Christopher Columbus has lost favor with many Americans. In 1977, just five years after Columbus Day became a national holiday in the U.S., participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed Indigenous Peoples Day as a replacement.

It took some years to catch on. In 1990, South Dakota became the first state to ditch Columbus Day for a holiday honoring Native Americans, and in 1992, the famously progressive city of Berkeley, California became the first to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in protest of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World.

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Now, at least 14 states (plus Washington, D.C.) and more than 130 American cities have either dropped Columbus Day entirely or co-celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday in October. (Hawaii calls it Discoverers Day and honors the Polynesian discoverers of Hawaii.) In 2021, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day alongside Columbus Day. It was the first time a U.S. president had commemorated Indigenous Peoples Day.

But what is Indigenous Peoples Day exactly, and how can Americans both honor the troubled history of the continent's original inhabitants while celebrating the living culture and contributions of modern Native Americans?

We spoke with Reneé Gokey, an education specialist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., about the opportunity that Indigenous Peoples Day gives all Americans to not only take an honest look at Native American history, but also to celebrate today's diverse Native cultures through their art, literature, film and food. (Gokey is an enrolled member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and is also Shawnee, Sac and Fox Nation, and Myaamia from her paternal grandparents.) Here are some of her suggestions:

Look for Histories That Includes Native Voices

Growing up, many Americans learned about Native Americans only in history class. Starting with Columbus, history lessons in school typically took on a Eurocentric perspective of "discovery" and Manifest Destiny, not the violent colonization and forced removal experienced by Native peoples.

One of Gokey's projects at the National Museum of the American Indian is Native Knowledge 360°, an interactive educational resource for teachers and students that explores key moments in U.S. history from an indigenous perspective. For example, what does it mean to remove a people? Or were treaties meant to last forever?

"Teaching more accurate and complete narratives that include these different perspectives is key to rethinking our history," says Gokey. "But we rarely hear Native perspectives in media, classrooms and books. The silences speak loudly and they really discount the incredible resilience and innovation of Native cultures."

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More Ways to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day

Promote Indigenous Education in the Present Tense

According to a study of U.S. educational standards from kindergarten through high school, the vast majority (87 percent) of lessons that include Native Americans take place in a pre-1900 context. When indigenous people are exclusively talked about in the past tense, it creates a false narrative that Native peoples and their cultures are dead or irrelevant.

For example, if you've been taught the disturbing truth about Columbus' treatment of the indigenous Taíno people of the Caribbean, you'll know that 90 percent of the Taíno were killed from a combination of slave labor and European diseases by 1540, less than 50 years after Columbus landed in Hispaniola. But that's not where the Taíno story ends.

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"The Taíno people are alive today," says Gokey. "So many of our textbooks say that all the Native people in the Caribbean died off, but they continue to live in Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean and the U.S."

Seek Out Connections With Native Culture

If you're lucky enough to live somewhere that recognizes and celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day, attend cultural events and festivals that showcase Native histories, art, dance and food. Sadly, many of these events have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Gokey says there are still plenty of ways to forge personal connections with indigenous history and culture either online or in your own home:

  1. Prepare and eat Native American foods. "Consider buying food from Native food purveyors," says Gokey, many of which sell their products online. Red Lake Nation Foods is a native-owned company famous for its wild rice. Or try some ancient tepary beans from Ramona Farms. If you're looking for recipes, pick up a copy of "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," winner of the 2018 James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook.
  2. Support Native artists. "Art is a way that contemporary Native people are using the past to connect with their vibrancy today," says Gokey. Indian Art Markets, where you can both see and buy works by Native artists happen throughout the year. Eighth Generation is an indigenous-owned company that sells beautiful blankets, clothing, jewelry and really cool phone cases.
  3. Watch movies and read books by indigenous filmmakers and authors. Gokey is a fan of the Vision Maker Media Film Festival, an annual showcase of Native American movies that also went online this year. And Social Justice Books has a curated list of Native American books that range from toddler-appropriate board books to high school-age novels. A great primer on Native American history for both teens and adults is "An Indigneous People's History of the United States" by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
  4. Hear from Native activists. The National Museum of the American Indian is hosting a virtual event on Oct. 11, 2021 at 1 p.m. ET called "Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Black-Indigenous Youth Advancing Social Justice." You can attend the live event online.

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Originally Published: Oct 9, 2020

Indigenous People's Day FAQ

What states recognize Indigenous Peoples Day?
Fourteen states, plus Washington D.C. and more than 130 cities, observe Indigenous Peoples Day instead of or in addition to Columbus Day. These include Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.
What day is Indigenous Peoples Day?
Indigenous Peoples Day (or Discoverers Day in Hawaii) occurs every year on the second Monday in October.
When did Columbus Day become Indigenous Peoples Day?
South Dakota became the first state to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day in 1990. In 1992, the progressive city of Berkeley, California became the first to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in protest of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World.
Is it called Indigenous Peoples Day or Native Americans Day?
It's most commonly called Indigenous Peoples Day. If you're unsure what terms to use when talking about Native Americans — indigenous, first nation, American Indian — check out Native Knowledge 360°'s helpful explainer Am I Using the Right Word?
What does Indigenous Peoples Day represent?
Indigenous Peoples Day invites Americans to take an honest look at Native American history and honors Native peoples throughout the U.S., recognizing the legacy of colonialism on Native communities. It also celebrates today's diverse Native cultures through their art, literature, film and food. This occurs on a day previously marked as Columbus Day in recognition of the explorer's crimes and harms against slaves and indigenous peoples — something that many Americans don't want to celebrate anymore.

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