More and more places are opting out of Columbus Day—a holiday marking the Italian explorer’s “discovery” of the United States 524 years ago—in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which offers a more honest take on America’s origin story.
Last week, Phoenix, AZ, became the most recent (and biggest) city to acknowledge that Native Americans were already living here when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, as well as their oppression at the hands of European settlers. Denver also announced its adoption of the holiday just two days before Phoenix.
The movement towards embracing Indigenous Peoples’ Day started in Berkeley, CA. It was 1992—and the 500th anniversary of Columbus sailing the ocean blue—when the federal government came up with a terrible idea: The Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission planned to build replicas of his three ships, and sail them across the Atlantic from Spain, which sponsored Columbus’ voyage. The ships would makes several stops in the Caribbean, and pass through major American towns and the Panama Canal, all the way to the San Francisco Bay. When they reached the Golden Gate Bridge on Oct. 12, Columbus Day, the plan was for everyone to celebrate.
But the commission ran out of funding before the ships ever reached its destination. The hoopla surrounding the failed event prompted locals to question Columbus’ legacy.
“The politics of what happened with Columbus, or who Columbus was, and what the celebration was about was really not looked at at the time,” John Curl, a Berkeley-based woodworker and leader of the movement to abolish Columbus Day, told Fusion. “People here started to take a closer look at the thing, and understand that the history is that Columbus wasn’t really just an explorer, but he was a pretty horrible military guy.”
Soon after, Curl and a group of his friends started petitioning local politicians in Berkeley. The city council voted unanimously to drop the holiday, and officially replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, making Berkeley the first American city to do so. “It wasn’t really difficult to change the city council’s minds” on abolishing Columbus Day, Curl recalled.
Since then, the list of cities following suit has only grown. By our count, there are 22 cities across America that officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday, in lieu of Columbus Day.
Still, we’re far from attaining full recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The Cincinnati City Council recently voted to reject the day. Meanwhile, South Dakota and Alaska are the only states that officially acknowledge it, although Hawaii and Oregon have opted out of observing Columbus Day. But, as more places begin to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the closer America gets to what Curl envisioned when he launched his campaign in Berkeley 24 years ago.
“We really cannot continue in this tradition and this history, which is personified by Columbus, where some people in Spain went out and started conquering other people and demanding so many resources because they couldn’t be content with what they had,” he said. “The only way that the planet and human society and human civilization can continue is if it learns how to live in sustainable ways that Indigenous people have been living since time immemorial.”
“That’s what Indigenous Peoples’ Day is.”