On Monday, federal workers and many others will get a day off for Columbus Day, a welcome respite from the workday routine. But for some, there will be little relaxation on the federal holiday as the legacy of Christopher Columbus comes under increasing scrutiny.
Objections from increasingly mainstream portions of the American public have condemned the holiday in recent years. Many detractors support the replacement of "Columbus Day" with "Indigenous Peoples' Day," a holiday celebrating the culture and achievements of the original inhabitants of the land that became the United States.
Over the past few years, more cities and even a few states have officially embraced Indigenous People's Day. As the trend becomes more popular, however, the debate about the explorer's place in history and the largely overlooked trials of native Americans has become more heated and more divisive for US citizens across the board.
Columbus Day is one of only 10 official federal holidays. But according to a 2015 Pew Research poll, only 23 states, plus the District of Columbia, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico, give their workers the day off with pay. If trends continue, that number may continue to decrease.
On Thursday, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a proclamation declaring October 10, 2016 Indigenous Peoples' Day. The proclamation encouraged Vermonters to "to recognize the sacrifice and contributions of the First Peoples of this land" on "this day traditionally observed as Columbus Day."
While this proclamation only covers this year's celebration, some cities have voted to permanently change the holiday, including Denver, Colorado. Angelo Noce, an Italian immigrant who moved to Denver in the 1800s, pushed for the holiday as a way to honor the national heritage of Italian-Americans during a time of rampant oppression against Italian immigrants, according to The Denver Post. Columbus, an Italian, sailed under the Spanish flag on his voyages to the new world, and thanks to Noce, Colorado became the first state to celebrate the holiday in 1909.
But after decades of being cast in a rosy light for the benefit of the holiday, the legacy of Christopher Columbus began to be reevaluated by mainstream historians in the 1970s. Historians began to criticize the "benevolent" image of Columbus, highlighting his role as a founding member of the transatlantic slave trade, with many historians and activists going so far as to accuse the explorer of genocide.
Historian Matthew Dennis told NPR that "within 50 years of 1492, the Greater Antilles and Bahamas saw their population reduced from an estimated million people to about 500." The native population drop in population is largely attributed to forced labor and mistreatment by Columbus and fellow Europeans searching for gold in the region.
"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, told a Boston rally aimed at removing Columbus's name from the holiday last Wednesday.
Even those who do not agree that Columbus was as bad as many historians claim have to admit that many of the discoveries traditionally attributed to Columbus are factually inaccurate. For instance, Columbus did not discover that the world is round; the understanding that the world is round can be credited to the Ancient Greeks, and was commonly accepted for centuries before Columbus, The Washington Post points out. Nor was Columbus the first to discover the Americas; Leif Erikson is the first known European to run across the continent, establishing a Norse settlement there in the 10th century.
The idea to replace Columbus Day dates back to 1977 with a proposal made at the United Nations' International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas. In 1992, the city council of Berkeley, California was the first to celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day. Before 1992, states with high native populations, like South Dakota and Hawaii, did not observe Columbus Day either.
For many native Americans, Columbus is a symbol of European colonialism, enabling widespread destruction of indigenous cultures and its people and paving the way for rampant oppression and forced relocation. The effects of these policies can be felt even today. A 2014 Pew research poll found that 26 percent of American Indian and Alaska Natives still live in poverty.
Despite changing opinions about the legacy of Columbus, here is still considerable resistance to changing the holiday. In Cincinnati, the city council rejected a proclamation to establish Indigenous Peoples' Day through five abstentions, instead of outright "no" votes. The abstentions would seem to reflect ambivalence about changing a traditional American holiday in the face of a reevaluation of American history.
"The Shawnee tribe once protected and lived off the land we now all call home," Chris Seelbach, Democratic city council member told USA Today. "It's disappointing that a majority of City Council has no interest in recognizing and honoring their history. We've come so far on being an inclusive city. Refusing to recognize native Americans sets us back."