What’s in a name? A lot, say eight cities changing “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day” in the past two months.
For decades, Native Americans have urged states that celebrate the federal holiday to reconsider honoring a man many historians accuse of opening the Americas to enslavement, genocide, and cultural destruction – and “finding” the wrong continent, to boot. (The Italian explorer was convinced he’d reached Asia.)
South Dakota and Berkeley, Calif., were among the first to pay attention, choosing to use the second Monday in October to honor the New World’s first inhabitants instead of its 15th century newcomers. Berkeley’s decision went into effect in 1992, marking the 500th anniversary of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria’s fabled ocean voyage.
But further protests seemed to fall on deaf ears, until a sudden wave of Columbus cancellations in the past two years: 10 more cities have joined the list, from Albuquerque to Seattle to St. Paul. This new wave may represent a broader shift in how Americans view Native American rights, or at least the growing local political influence of indigenous groups.
According to the Albequerque City Council’s Proclamation, Indigenous Peoples Day is meant to honor the “indigenous nations [who] have lived upon this land since time immemorial” and show respect for “American Indian thought, culture, and technology.”
Although debates rage on about exactly how much damage Europeans inflicted on Native populations immediately after their arrival, some estimate that up to 90 percent of the continent’s first inhabitants died from warfare, enslavement, or diseases, violence which carried into the American government’s discriminatory policies through the 19th and early 20th century, and are still felt today, when 25 percent live in poverty, versus the US average of 15 percent.