Many Places Refuse to Abandon Columbus Day — But They Are Losing That Battle

It has taken decades to reach this moment when 141 cities, 15 states, numerous universities, and the nation of Trinidad and Tobago officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

But for every city that chooses to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, more are still on the fence or willfully choosing to ignore the Indigenous people in their community.

And some of the places that recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day also continue to acknowledge Columbus Day alongside it — for example, Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed a proclamation this fall recognizing Oct. 12 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day but did not replace Columbus Day as a state holiday.

The City Council in Baltimore pushed through a bill this week to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but the city’s mayor has not yet said whether he will sign it.

Meanwhile demonstrators rallied Saturday in Boston to protest the city’s ongoing celebration of Christopher Columbus.

“Boston and many other cities choose to ignore urban Indigenous populations and often urban Native centers, too,” said Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of United American Indians of New England and lead organizer for Indigenous Peoples Day MA. “We are not a priority to them, and we have to go through a lot to get them to listen to and respect us.”

Across the U.S., many Indigenous Peoples’ Day organizers have reported that one of the main barriers they face is overcoming the inaccurate historical narrative of Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of American lands, which persists even though Columbus himself never stepped foot in North America — and, more importantly, people had been living here for thousands of years before 1492. Columbus is portrayed as a hero and an explorer, and the atrocities he and his men committed against Indigenous peoples — including rape, murder and torture — are glossed over in most history books.

“When we do an [Indigenous Peoples’ Day] campaign, we have two big steps: to explain why Columbus should not be celebrated and to explain why Indigenous Peoples’ Day brings something positive to replace Columbus Day,” Munro told Truthout. “We talk not only about 1492, but also about some more contemporary Indigenous issues and our ongoing genocide.”

“In particular, we try to make the city/town aware of local Indigenous history and ongoing presence,” Munro added. “Like many other settler societies, Massachusetts erases Indigenous people and we get asked here, too, if we are not all extinct. The statewide curriculum has very little about Indigenous history and nothing about contemporary Indigenous people or issues.”

Munro added that working on Indigenous Peoples’ Day campaigns can be brutal because of the lack of respect for Native people and their histories during the political process.

“It can feel abusive to be in hearings where people are saying horrible and untrue things, denying our genocide, and we are prevented from responding directly,” Munro told Truthout. “Legislators seem to have no compunction about platforming this racism even when we explain why that is a problem.”

Decades of Struggle

It has taken many years of struggle for activists to push each city, state and institution that has finally recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day to do so.

The dream was beginning to take root even before 1969, when over 200 Native activists occupied the former prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay to draw attention to the treaty violations and injustices impacting Native communities.

In 1989, after years of Native-led organizing, South Dakota became the first state to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day when it passed a proposal deeming 1990 a “year of reconciliation.” It was a small first step that led Native people in other communities to believe that the dream of replacing Columbus Day was more than just a possibility; it was inevitable.

However, it wasn’t until 1992, when Native people in the Bay area were protesting the 500-year celebration and re-enactment of the arrival of Christopher Columbus, that the Indigenous Peoples’ Day movement began gaining traction.

In response to the “Quincentennial Jubilee” that was organized by Congress to celebrate the “discovery of America,” the Native community formed the Bay Area Native Alliance and the “Resistance 500” task force. They organized protests and counter events to challenge the narrative of “discovery” and whitewashed history associated with Columbus’s arrival.

While San Francisco was celebrating the fifth centennial of Columbus’s arrival, the “Resistance 500” task force sent representatives to Berkeley, California, to convince the city to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. They succeeded. Moreover, they also persuaded the city to recognize 1992 as the “Year of Indigenous People.” Two years later, the city of Santa Cruz followed suit. However, these victories did not lead to an immediate domino effect of other cities and states adopting Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Native organizing took many forms in the years that followed, but it wasn’t until 20 years later, in 2014, that a resurgence in the movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day would result in a chain of victories across the country. It has taken the collaborative efforts of Native organizations like the American Indian Movement and National Congress of American Indians and local grassroots Indigenous Peoples’ Day coalitions to mobilize efforts in their communities. The 2016 uprising at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline energized movements for Indigenous rights and liberation, fueling the fight to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

This effort has never been as simple as bringing forth a resolution to a city council or state government to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It takes a tremendous amount of effort, time and tenacity.

The Campaign for Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Massachusetts

Indigenous Peoples Day MA has been mobilizing efforts to have Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognized in Massachusetts since 2015. While the coalition’s members have had several successes in Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Marblehead, Wellesley College and Tufts University, they have met with strong resistance in Boston.

Indigenous activists have expressed frustration with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the city council for their unresponsiveness.

Kisha James, President of the Wellesley College Native American Student Association, said the reason for the resistance and silence is because of the “extreme erasure” that Indigenous people must contend with in so-called New England.

“As a result, a lot of non-Native people assume there are no Indigenous people living in the city, and then racists … come forward to deny our genocide,” said James. “The power dynamics are a lot to overcome.”

“There is also a lot of history for us to scaffold,” said Munro, describing the dynamic of what it is like to go before city council meetings to push for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “Most non-Natives know nothing about whose land they are on, the true history of the area, what Columbus did … you name it.”

Pushing for More Than a Name Change

Some may wonder why there’s such an emphasis on the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, when it’s just one day out of the year. But for Native people, it’s not only about one day.

“Indigenous Peoples’ Day is also really important because we never see ourselves celebrated anywhere outside of our own communities,” James said. “Indigenous Peoples’ Day can also build community. We go through a lot together, testifying at hearings, marching on the streets, all of that creates community in new ways.”

On October 10, Indigenous Peoples Day MA, United American Indians of New England (UAINE), and the North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB) held a rally and march in Boston to demand that the city acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ Day and take other steps toward recognizing and supporting Native communities. Protesters also demonstrated against plans for the repair and reinstallation of a Columbus statue that was vandalized in June by racial justice protesters.

“A great thing about Indigenous Peoples’ Day is that it helps to build community among those working together to make this happen, not only within Indigenous communities but with allies from other communities,” said Munro. “We make it clear to towns that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is just a first step, not just a box to check off.”

The growing recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is the result of decades-long efforts by Native people. As celebrations occur across the nation, don’t forget to support the local efforts of Native organizers in your communities. Native-led campaigns are working to stop fossil fuel pipelines around the country, protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, confront the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and advocating for treaty rights and true decolonization. Acknowledge the work of these Native activists. Ask how you can get involved, and support their efforts to have Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognized — and seek out ways to support the many other ongoing projects that Native organizers are spearheading, in the varied and long-term fight for decolonization and Indigenous liberation.

For more information on how you can help in Boston and Massachusetts, visit IndigenousPeoplesDayMA.org.