The History of Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day In the United States

Americans have always loved and honored their heroes. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Neil Armstrong are just a few that we revere with tremendous gratitude… men of great courage and achievement. Among the many heroes who have been memorialized with a Federal Holiday is Christopher Columbus, whose holiday is celebrated on the 2nd Monday in October.

Christopher Columbus stands out significantly in American history for generally being recognized as having “discovered America”, despite never actually having set foot on what is now continental American soil.  The Americas are not even named after Columbus, an honor bestowed upon another Italian navigator sailing under the flag of Spain named Amerigo Vespucci a decade later.   As an Italian explorer sailing under the Spanish flag of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, on an expedition to find a westward sea passage to Asia… how did Columbus become such a national figure in American history?

nina, pinta, and santa maria
Replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria

Columbus’ 10-week quest for a route to Asia aboard the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria ended October 12, 1492, upon landing on the island of Guanahani in the Bahamas.  Later that month, he sighted what he thought was mainland China…in fact current-day Cuba and ultimately the island of Hispaniola, which he thought to be Japan.  It was on the Island of Hispaniola that Columbus established the first colony in the “New World” on behalf of Spain.  

The ensuing years, decades, and centuries saw the expansion and colonization of the Americas, both North, and South.  Few will argue that in the history of the world; discovery, expansion, colonization, and conquest can benefit mankind, but comes with the ugliness that has led to the demise of great societies, cultures, and people.  

The very first celebration of Columbus Day was held in 1792 in New York to mark the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World.   The celebration was organized and sponsored by The Society of St. Tammany, also known as the Columbian Order, in honor of Columbus.  Tammany Societies originated during the Revolutionary War era to spread patriotism and republicanism and were named in honor of the mythical Delaware Indian Chief Tamamend.  Its officers were given Native American titles, thus an early sign of a connection to indigenous peoples.  

As with much of world history, varying accounts of what truly occurred abound and the origin of Columbus Day is no different.  In the Italian American community, the first Columbus Day celebration is said to have occurred 100 years later in 1892 to celebrate Italian heritage and contributions to society after a period of perceived religious and ethnic discrimination, and a mass lynching of 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans.  It was also in 1892 that President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation establishing a celebration of Columbus Day honoring the 400th anniversary of his landing.  

On October 12, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a federal observance amid heavy lobbying from the Italian American community and the Fraternal Order of the Knights of Columbus, however, this was not formalized as a Federal legal holiday until 1971, to be celebrated on the 2nd Monday in October rather than annually on October 12.

us map with states celebrating indigenous peoples day
US states celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day

Indigenous People’s Day was first proposed during a United Nations conference entitled The International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas on September 20-23, 1977, in Geneva, Switzerland.  Over 250 people participated with delegates representing over 60 indigenous peoples and Native nations.  Participants represented 15 American countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, United States and Venezuela.  It wasn’t until 1989 however that South Dakota became the first state to switch Columbus Day to Native American’s Day and formally celebrate the new day in 1990.  

Although a Federal legal holiday, not all states, counties or cities celebrate Columbus Day the same or even reference Columbus Day, as the 16 states that do not.  In an ever-evolving culture and society, many government entities have chosen to dismiss the achievements of Christopher Columbus in favor of recognition of Native Americans and indigenous peoples, unlike The Society of St. Tammany had done in 1792 in celebrating the positive interactions of both Columbus and the indigenous people he encountered.  Interestingly, the very first people on the continents of North and South America migrated from Asia some 13,000 years earlier, the very land Columbus had set out to find.

Columbus Day/Indigenous People’s Day is celebrated very differently in many parts of American society unrelated to geographic demographics. The Italian community has evolved into celebrations of Italian culture and heritage with parades, street fairs, cultural music, food, and costumes… and only passing acknowledgment of Columbus’s achievements. Those celebrating Indigenous People’s Day often celebrate with traditional Native American events devoid of reference to Columbus and with the sharing of often lost or forgotten Native American history. For many of us, work is the celebration of the day. As with holidays such as Labor Day, Martin Luther King Day and President’s Day, most private businesses are open and Federal offices and those regulated by Federal law such as banks are closed.

Whether Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day, both honor American history and true reverence and respect is afforded to the brave and courageous forbears who gave us the America we live in today.

Featured Image Credit: OPENCLIPART / Wikimedia Commons
In Post 1 Image Credit: Edward the Confessor / Wikimedia Commons
In Post 2 Image Credit: Kaldari / Wikimedia Commons

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