UN Photo/Gill Fickling
Indigenous Wayuu children in the village of Pessuapa, Colombia.

Indigenous Peoples Day, Columbus Day, or Both?

Duane Champagne

Many indigenous people have protested the commemoration of Columbus Day. In the United States, Columbus Day is celebrated on October 12, and is a federal holiday. When the United Nations in 1992 moved to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in America, many Indigenous Peoples protested and offered instead a proposal to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.

In the 1990s, many Indigenous Peoples around the world were already engaged in the UN discussions that led to the ultimate acceptance of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The protests were strongly made and the UN responded with promises to form an international Indigenous Peoples Day, which is now commemorated on August 9. Unfortunately, the UN’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is not well-known or widely celebrated.

Indigenous Peoples still protest Columbus Day, especially when the commemoration does not acknowledge the presence of Indigenous Peoples. The argument that Columbus discovered America is rejected by Indigenous Peoples and many intellectuals. Indigenous rights movements in many countries say Columbus is responsible for opening the door to 500 years of political and cultural repression. Some indigenous nations and anti-Columbus conferences proposed celebrating 500 years of resistance, and called upon Indigenous Peoples to unite and seek liberation. The UN countered with the creation of International Decades of the World’s Indigenous People, which contributed to the establishment of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples and the Declaration.

Some cities, states, and countries have changed the celebration of Columbus Day to a commemoration honoring solidarity and recognition of Indigenous Peoples. In many U.S. cities, like Berkeley, California, there was considerable consensus and the change was made with relatively little resistance. In other cities and states, resistance to changing Columbus Day comes from the Italian community and the Knights of Columbus. Some cities have agreed to celebrate Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day, while others have rejected the idea of Indigenous Peoples Day.

Recently in Los Angeles, a proposal to change the Columbus Day city holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day was tabled by the city council. Currently, Los Angeles honors the federal holiday and employees are given the day as paid vacation. The city estimates that its costs for honoring Columbus Day through worker compensation and other activities are more than $20 million. The city was not in a position to create another holiday, so the discussion focused on replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, or celebrating them together.

There was organized and strong opposition from the Italian community, who want to retain Columbus Day because it has become a major event celebrating Italian culture, heritage, and identity. The Knights of Columbus, an auxiliary Catholic organization, argued that they were instrumental in creating Columbus Day as an official U.S. federal holiday, and that it had little to do with migration and ethnic identity. Indian community members testified about the affects of colonialism on Indian peoples and the thousands of years that Indians had lived in California and in the Los Angeles Valley.

Today, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Peoples from throughout the Americas and the world live in Los Angeles, which may be one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in the world. The creation of an Indigenous Peoples Day would underscore the extraordinary diversity of the Los Angeles area.

The strong Italian tradition and acceptance of Columbus Day into their heritage should also be respected. Indigenous Peoples lived in a world of many indigenous cultures, and each was honored and respected. Indigenous Peoples are willing to participate in contemporary national events, but on their own terms, and not at the sacrifice of their own traditions. Today, we have the opportunity to unite within city, state and federal governments to create a holiday that recognizes the heritages of Indigenous Peoples and our Italian brothers and sisters.

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