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How and Why to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day (Instead of Columbus Day)

Many of us were taught, and still believe, that Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the Americas. We’re led to understand that this is why many of us celebrate Columbus Day each year. 

However, there are several misconceptions about the “discovery” of the Americas, as well as information left out about the man himself and his legacy, that should force people to rethink celebrating Columbus’s life and alleged accomplishments. 

There are a growing number of people who celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day, and we will cover the reasons for this below, as well as ways you can support the further spread of the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day across the country.

Christopher Columbus: A Terrible and Terrifying Legacy

Christopher Columbus sailed across the ocean in 1492 in an attempt to reach China and India. However, he and his crew landed in the Bahamas believing he’d reached Asia. Later, upon seeing Cuba for the first time, he assumed he was looking at China’s mainland. 

While Columbus was credited as the European who “discovered” America, he didn’t technically discover anything (because, you know, people already lived there), nor was he even the first European to reach the region. But most importantly: indigenous people already inhabited the Americas in tribes, civilizations, communities, and more across the Caribbean, North America, and South America. 

But the worst part of Columbus Day is that it actively promotes the actions of a terrible man and the brutal legacy of slavery, exploitation, and colonization that he set into motion. While Columbus didn’t “discover” America, he did begin the hundreds-year long process of brutalizing and subjugating the lands and its people, all so he could make his masters back home rich. 

For one, Columbus was responsible for initiating the transatlantic slave trade, enslaving the indigenous populations of the areas in which he landed. This later evolved to kidnapping Africans from their homelands and bringing them into slavery in the Americas. 

On top of enslaving indigenous people, Christopher Columbus and those working with him were exceedingly cruel to the people who inhabited the areas he reached. Brutal torture, theft of natural resources, enslavement, and mass murder were used by Columbus throughout his expeditions. In many ways, he set this as the norm for those empires and colonists that followed in his footsteps. Columbus wasn’t just a “product of his time,” as many argue. He was the one who began “the time” where transatlantic slavery and colonization became the norm.

In short, Christopher Columbus does not deserve to be celebrated. He was one of history’s greatest monsters.

What Is Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a one-day celebration to honor the past, present, and future of America’s first nations. The holiday seeks to recognize Native American history and the refusal to sweep the devastation of colonization under the rug. The event is meant to focus on the culture, history, and strength of Native Americans throughout time.

In lieu of Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is celebrated on the second Monday of October each year. 

This holiday is not new, though it has gained popularity and attention in recent years. Since 1977, individuals across the country have opted to celebrate First Nations people rather than the genocide initiated by Christopher Columbus.

Though it is not yet a federally recognized holiday, 14 states and over 130 cities celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day as of last year. (Though, according to the Salt Lake Tribune: this year, the president “issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, lending the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Native peoples.”)

People who choose to celebrate and spread the word about Indigenous Peoples’ Day do not have to be members of First Nations tribes, nor do they have to be of Native American ancestry. Anyone can celebrate the holiday, and all are encouraged to do so.

How and Why Should You Celebrate It?

When determining why individuals should celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a better question is, “why should we be celebrating a tyrannical man who brought misery to practically everyone he came into contact with?”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrates life and brings visibility to millions of people living across the Americas. The holiday teaches about the history, traditions, and culture of Native Americans today. 

Additionally, Indigenous Peoples’ Day helps inform the public about worthy Native American causes, like activism efforts by First Nations people to keep sacred lands out of government and corporate hands, and the fight against climate change. 

How Should I Celebrate?

Due to the pandemic, it might be difficult or even dangerous to attend an in-person celebration of the holiday, but there are still several things you can do to honor Native American history.

You could attend a virtual event celebrating the holiday, donate money or volunteer work to Native organizations, shop at Native-owned businesses, spread the word or start a discussion about the holiday, and take the time to learn about the Native American tribes, cultures, nations, and peoples in your area. 

Additionally, discuss Native American history with your loved ones and friends, including your children if you have any.  

How to Support Indigenous People of the Americas

You can also honor this holiday by supporting the struggles and efforts of Native American people. 

There are several worthy causes to get involved with and advocate for, many of which do not cost any money to support (though donations are always helpful).

And of course, one of the best ways to advocate for something is through word-of-mouth. Talk about your plan to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day with those around you. You might be surprised how many people are unaware that the holiday exists. 

If you’d like to learn more about positive impacts you can have and advocacy efforts you can get involved with to improve the lives of Indigenous people across the Americas, take a look at the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Toolkit. It will help walk you through the ins and outs of the holiday celebration, as well as the meaning behind the observance and social steps you should and should not take to be mindful of Native American culture.

In closing, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a holiday intended to empower people related to the First Nations of the Americas. Its significance far outweighs the empty celebration of Christopher Columbus and his brutal, terrible legacy. Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrates life and culture and resilience, and that’s far more admirable than celebrating someone who brought such a terrible blight on human history.


Image credit: By Quinn Dombrowski from Berkeley, USA – Day 286: Indigenous Peoples Day, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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