Is it Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples' Day? City by city choices

Some cities, like Phoenix, Ariz., will celebrate native Americans on Oct. 10. This week, Bostonians rallied for a similar change. But the shift is not universally popular.

Elaine Thompson/AP/File
Ferntree, of Duncan, BC, a member of the Cowichan Tribes, holds her hand up as a prayer is given during a Native American protest against Columbus Day in Seattle in 2011. In 2014, Seattle joined the growing number of cities that have renamed the holiday to Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Are you celebrating Columbus Day on Monday?

Inhabitants of US cities from Santa Cruz, Calif., to Belfast, Maine, will instead observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day next week. On Wednesday, as Phoenix, Ariz., became the largest city to make the switch, Bostonians rallied outside City Hall to press for a similar change. Advocates say that the name change recognizes the consequences of Columbus’s arrival – the process of European settlement that caused the deaths of countless indigenous peoples and the loss of their lands. But some say that renaming Columbus Day obscures the discrimination once experienced by Italian Americans, whom the holiday was originally instituted to honor.

"The movement is really to get the record straight – celebrate indigenous people that currently exist today in the U.S. and Boston and across the world, [and] just to recognize the true record of what happened," Danielle DeLuca, program manager at Cultural Survival, which helped implement the name change in nearby Cambridge, Mass., told the Boston rally on Wednesday.

That focus on history was echoed in Cleveland, where Councilwoman Yvette Simpson proposed renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

"This perspective is not meant to be divisive. In fact, it’s meant to be inclusive, not to rewrite history but to tell the full story," she said before the vote. The measure failed to get a majority, with 4 yes votes and 5 abstentions.

But opponents say the name change may be perpetuating discrimination against another population: Italian Americans. At a 2014 news conference, Seattle activist Ralph Fascitelli, who was coordinating a movement to change the name back to Columbus Day, announced, “We say today, ‘Basta!’ We say, ‘Enough.’ We say, ‘No more discrimination.’ Not now and not here.” 

Columbus Day, which celebrates the arrival of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in the American continent, was first given national recognition by President Benjamin Harrison following the 1892 lynching of 11 Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans. Intended to counter anti-Italian immigrant attitudes, the day became a federal holiday in 1934.

One Cleveland City Council member, Charlie Winburn, suggested that replacing a holiday presented a greater challenge than establishing a new one. States and cities can establish their own holidays, and Columbus Day was celebrated in more than 20 states before gaining federal recognition.

But activists may feel that renaming an existing federal holiday is a better route to recognition than attempting to establish a new holiday nationwide. There are just 10 federal holidays held every year.

In much of Latin America, Columbus Day – referred to as Day of the Race (El Día de La Raza) and similar names – celebrates indigenous traditions and cultural heritage. Indigenous people, who account for around 13 percent of Latin America’s population, often face poverty and discrimination, and the day is seen as a time to recognize those struggles. The quincentennial of Columbus Day in 1992 provided the impetus for forming a fund to support indigenous development in the region. Colonial powers Spain and Portugal are founding members.

"A lot of people view a name change as just a symbolic gesture," said Tufts sophomore Parker Breza to the Daily Free Press, "but they forget that when history is continually erased, correcting those false narratives and bringing up these counter-narratives is really important."

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