The History Behind the Movement to Replace Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples' Day

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tags: Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples Day




Arica L. Coleman is the author of  "That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia" and chair of the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories at the Organization of American Historians.

While the Federal Government will close on Oct. 9 for the 80th commemoration of Columbus Day, which was made official by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, some U. S. cities will mark the day in a different way, choosing rather to focus on the original inhabitants of the land to which Christopher Columbus sailed.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first adopted by the Berkeley, Calif., City Council on Oct. 22, 1991, and observed the following year with activities and cultural events throughout the city and Bay area in lieu of the Columbus Quincentennial, marking the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the Americas. Its purpose, according to the IPD 1992 event flyer, was, “to express appreciation for our survival, acknowledgement of our contribution to today’s world community, and to commemorate our fallen patriots.” This year marks the 25th annual commemoration in that city, and many other municipalities will follow suit, as polarization around this history deepens in light of discussion of whether public memorials to Columbus ought to come down.

This controversy represents a marked departure from the attitude FDR displayed when he pronounced Columbus Day a celebration of the “promise which Columbus's discovery gave to the world.” A document that sheds light on how the day was first reconsidered was recently published by the Indigenous Peoples Day Committee to commemorate its diamond anniversary. Indigenous Peoples Day: A Handbook for Activists and Documentary Historyprovides details of the early years of this growing movement.

Though the first Indigenous Peoples’ Day was celebrated in the early 1990s, the idea took shape many years earlier. According to the book’s curator John Curl, the first seeds of the idea to commemorate the histories and cultures of indigenous peoples throughout the Americas in lieu of Columbus Day were planted in 1977, in Geneva, at the first International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas. The conference included “the first, the widest and most united representation of indigenous nations” in modern history, Curl writes. By the conclusion of the conference, a list of recommendations were drafted, outlining a course of action to support indigenous peoples right to self-determination. And there in Article 1 of the Geneva Resolution was the foremost contention of the conference: a rebuttal to the doctrine of discovery. The conference attendees stated their intention “to observe October 12, the day of so-called ‘discovery’ of America, as an International Day of Solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.”

Yet the idea remained dormant for years. Then, in 1984, President Reagan appointed the U.S. Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission “to plan, encourage, coordinate, and conduct the commemoration of the voyages of Christopher Columbus.” Reagan’s uncritical acceptance of the discovery narrative was clearly demonstrated two years later in his Columbus Day Proclamation when he stated, “This great explorer won a place in history and in the hearts of all Americans because he challenged the unknown and thereby found a New World.” ...




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