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OPINION: Indigenous Peoples’ Day Is More Than a Holiday’s New Name

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

By Melanie Paredes | October 11, 2021

It wasn’t until 2019 that mainstream U.S. society began to call Columbus Day by its true name: Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The name change signifies the remembrance of the genocide and abuse of the Tainos, the Indigenous people of the Caribbean, upon Christopher Columbus’ arrival in Hispaniola. This opposes the false historical narrative that Columbus “discovered” America in 1492. Indigenous peoples have been fighting against Columbus Day since the 1970s. In 1977, Indigenous peoples brought up renaming the holiday to the United Nations, to no avail. South Dakota was the first state to adopt Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 1989. Berkeley, California was the first U.S. city to adopt Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 1992, 500 years after Columbus’ conquest. After 2014, the majority of states started to call the holiday Indigenous Peoples Day. In 2019, the D.C. council voted to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. To this day, numerous U.S. cities are still debating over the name change.

The D.C. council’s 2019 ruling is not permanent (federal legislature would need to approve of the name change for permanency), meaning that Columbus Day still stands as the legal name for the federal holiday. One may ask: Why is it so challenging to honor the countless Indigenous lives lost instead of the man who ordered their genocide? The answer is that Christopher Columbus is a representation of European conquest. He is a symbol of the white pride that runs

rampant through this country’s psyche. Additionally, one of the primary causes of the resistance towards changing the name of the holiday is Columbus’ Italian heritage. Many Italian-Americans take pride in the fact that a man in innumerable history books came from their country, which is understandable. Any individual would feel proud of their heritage if a person from that same heritage played a pivotal role in the history of this country. However, Columbus should not be celebrated for any reason. There is no logical defense of the narrative of him discovering America; the Tainos had already discovered it.

The infamous legacy of Christopher Columbus still lives on. Many people still say “Columbus Day” instead of “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”. In fact, at UAlbany, Indian Quad was renamed as Indigenous Quad at the beginning of this year, even though the university has existed since 1916. The term Indian refers to anyone from India, and the usage of it to describe Indigenous peoples echoes Columbus’ perspective of them: he thought that he arrived in India, so he deemed them “Indians” (The Oklahoman). The term indigenous means “a group of...peoples with a shared national identity, such as ‘Navajo’ or ‘Sami’, and is the equivalent of saying ‘the American people’”(UCLA: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion). Calling Indigenous peoples “Indians” is a further erasure of their history. Therefore, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is more than a new name for a federal holiday. It is a commemoration of the lives that endured the brutality of European conquest and colonialism. It is a commemoration of those who truly discovered America.

To properly honor Indigenous peoples, we must refrain from saying “Columbus Day”. We must urge schools to teach the story of the abused as opposed to the story of the abuser. We must stop saying that Christopher Columbus discovered America. We must recognize that focusing on Indigenous peoples instead of Columbus diminishes the hold that white supremacy has had on the framing of our history. Changing “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” is only the beginning.

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