Today, October 11th 2021, we celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day on a day that is also recognized as Columbus Day. Here’s what you need to know about why Columbus Day as a holiday is whitewashed history.
As I learned it in elementary school, Columbus Day celebrates Columbus’s “discovery” of America. NPR says it was set as a federal holiday in 1934 to recognize the previous mistreatment of Italian Americans.
However, this history of Columbus as most people in our country understand it is completely whitewashed. For a history to be whitewashed means that it is not the whole truth, and sometimes is completely false. It means that it focuses only on the stories of white people and belittles or completely erases the stories and perspectives of people of color. In this case, the Indigenous people who lived and prospered on American land long before Columbus arrived here.
While many people understand Columbus to be a brave explorer, and a hero of sorts, the truth is Christopher Columbus and his men pillaged, raped, enslaved, and murdered countless Indigenous people.
Indigenous activists have spent many years working hard to try and shed national light on this truth. As NPR reports, in 1977, the idea for Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first proposed at a United Nations conference. The conference itself was held to discuss the discrimination Indigenous individuals face.
However, no real action was taken. NPR says the first state to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day became South Dakota 12 years later in 1989. Since then, several more states and individual cities have adopted the holiday, with some simultaneously unrecognizing Columbus Day. Most recently, President Biden became the very first President to nationally recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Visibility Is A Start
Indigenous leaders say this will bring more visibility to the Native American community, as well as to the real history of Christopher Columbus and the Indigenous communities that were victims of his violence.
Mandy Van Heuvelen is the cultural interpreter coordinator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a member of South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. In an interview with NPR, she said, “Until Native people are or are fully seen in our society and in everyday life, we can’t accomplish those bigger changes. As long as Native people remain invisible, it’s much more easier for people to look past those real issues and those real concerns within those communities.”
Oregon’s Indigenous political leaders recently passed a law, replacing the state-wide recognition of Columbus Day with that of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Oregon’s Rep. Tawna Sanchez told NPR, “I don’t know that we’ll ever get to a place where people have their land back or have the recognition of who they are, to the degree that we that we need to or should.” But, she says, more and more people are starting to pay attention and that’s critical if more people are to be educated about the true history. Because, as Rep. Sanchez says, “History is always written by the conqueror…”