Indigenous Peoples’ Day

This article is cross-posted from Cambridge Core.

Traditionally, the second Monday of October is observed as Columbus Day in the United States. However, the holiday and its history are controversial.

In August 1492, Italian explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus set off on his first of four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. Funded by the Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the original purpose of the journey was to find a water route to Asia. On October 12, Columbus landed on an island in the present-day Bahamas and claimed the territory for Spain. He mistakenly believed he had reached Asia, in particular, the coast of China or Japan. These lands were then known as the “Indies”, so he incorrectly named the indigenous people una hente Indios, meaning “people of the Indies” or “Indians.” As a result, “American Indian” became a common term for indigenous people in both the U.S. and Canada. Today, many perceive the term to be offensive because it is a malapropism, which was bestowed upon the indigenous people rather than being a name they gave to themselves.

A few years later in 1497, Italian explorer John Cabot arrived in what is modern-day Canada, which he mistook for the northeast coast of Asia. Both Cabot and Columbus thought they had found new water routes to Asia because the Americas were unknown to Europeans at the time. In the following centuries, other European countries began to explore and colonize this so-called “New World.”

Columbus is often credited with the “discovery” of America. In U.S. schools, children learn the rhyme, “In Fourteen-Hundred-and-Ninety-Two, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and are taught that Columbus “found” America. With modern hindsight it is argued that he didn’t discover the land, because indigenous people were already long established there. To indigenous people, these lands were certainly not “new.” In general, history is taught from the perspective of European settlers and white Americans. Meanwhile, comparatively little is taught in schools about indigenous history and culture. Holidays that celebrate recent European history and colonization have been accused of erasing indigenous history.

Columbus Day is a federal holiday, which means that individual states and municipalities can choose to not observe it. To that end, various states have recently changed the name and intent of the holiday, opting to honor indigenous people instead and to commemorate their history and culture. Oregon, Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, and Vermont are among the states that have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Most recently, Governor Ralph Northam declared October 12, 2020, to be the first Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Virginia. Other regions celebrate First Peoples’ Day or Native American Day. Today, some 15 states and more than 130 cities around the country celebrate indigenous people in lieu of Columbus Day, and this list is growing annually.

The movement to recognize indigenous history is becoming a trend in other countries with similar colonial histories. “Australia Day” is a national holiday celebrated on January 26th to mark the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships in Sydney Harbour, which established European settlement. In 1938, Aboriginal people protested against Australia Day and called it a “Day of Mourning” for the loss of their land, people, and culture. In recent years, some people have branded the holiday “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day” to reflect the adverse effects of settlement on Australia’s indigenous people. Others prefer to celebrate “Aboriginal Sovereignty Day” or “Australian Native’s Association Day” to acknowledge Aboriginal communities and culture instead of glorifying colonialism.

Read about this topic and more in Karen Stollznow’s new book, “On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.”

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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

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