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A Light Brigade protest in October 2014 calls on motorists to "rethink Columbus." (Photo: Light Brigading/cc/flickr)

As Cities Give Columbus the Boot, Indigenous Peoples Day Spreads Across US

'Knowing the facts of Columbus’s life, it seems astonishing that he is still treated with honor in many places.'

Lauren McCauley

While the annual celebration of Christopher Columbus has fueled years of outrage, satire, and resistance, this year an alternative holiday recognizing the original inhabitants of the United States appears to have reached the mainstream. 

In the past two months alone, eight major municipalities—including Albuquerque, New Mexico; Portland, Oregon; St. Paul, Minnesota; Bexar County, Texas; Anadarko, Oklahoma; Alpena, Michigan; Lawrence, Kansas; Carrboro, North Carolina; and Olympia, Washington—have opted to pay homage to the history and culture of the country's true native people by celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday in October. This wave follows recent moves in Seattle and Minneapolis, among others.

"For the Native community here, Indigenous Peoples Day means a lot," Nick Estes, who helped coordinate the city celebration after Albuquerque city council issued a declaration on the matter, told the Associated Press. "We actually have something. We understand it’s just a proclamation, but at the same time, we also understand this is the beginning of something greater." 

In Los Angeles on Sunday, native activists and supporters held a march in protest of the holiday while a growing number of teachers are moving away from the traditional, Euro-centric curriculum on America's so-called "discovery."

The movement dates back to 1990 when South Dakota became the first state to address the controversy over Columbus Day when they renamed the holiday Native American Day. Two years later, Berkeley, California introduced the first Indigenous Peoples Day. And while workers in 23 U.S. states enjoyed a paid day off in his honor, people across the country rallied online under the banner of #IndigenousPeoplesDay to call attention to the atrocities committed by and in the spirit of Christopher Columbus.

"Knowing the facts of Columbus’s life, it seems astonishing that he is still treated with honor in many places," writer and film producer Bayard Johnson wrote in a column on Monday. "Was he elevated to hero status because nobody knew the real story about Columbus’s inhumanity, his atrocities, his delusions, his failures? Or does history consider his crimes insignificant because his victims were mostly Indians?"

Detailing his many voyages and exploits, Johnson notes that while Columbus may not have "discovered the New World," he did lay the groundwork for generations of Europeans to "loot and plunder."

"He created a blueprint," Johnson continues. "Arrive uninvited. Pretend friendship. Take over. Enslave all natives who aren't slaughtered. Make money shipping slaves overseas. Keep some slaves to dig for gold and treasure.  This happened again and again, following the protocol Columbus invented. This was the real discovery of Columbus—how Europe could pillage and get rich off the Americas and the rest of the world." 

This legacy of colonialism, argues The Intercept's Jon Schwarz, has influenced everything from global trade deals to Israel's occupation of Palestine. "We shouldn’t celebrate it," Schwarz writes. "But if we want to comprehend the world—and we should, since our lives depend on it—we have to understand it."

As Bill Bigelow, educator, curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools, and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project, wrote at Common Dreams last week, "If Indigenous peoples' lives mattered in our society, and if Black people's lives mattered in our society, it would be inconceivable that we would honor the father of the slave trade with a national holiday."

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