Since 1991, dozens of cities, several universities, and a growing number of states have adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a holiday that celebrates the history and contributions of Native Americans.
When Is Indigenous Peoples' Day?
Not by coincidence, the holiday usually falls on Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, or replaces the holiday entirely. In 2022, it will fall on Monday, October 10.
Where Is Indigenous People's Day Celebrated?
As of 2022, the holiday is observed or honored by states including Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont, Iowa, North Carolina, California, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Virginia, Oregon, Texas, as well as South Dakota, which celebrates Native Americans’ Day, Hawaii, which celebrates Discoverers' Day, and Alabama, which celebrates American Indian Heritage Day.
Indigenous Peoples' Day is not yet a federal holiday, but in 2021, President Biden became the first U.S. president to issue a proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day, writing, "Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society."
Why Replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day?
Activists have long argued that holidays, statues and other memorials to Columbus sanitize his actions—which include the enslavement of Native Americans—while giving him credit for “discovering” a place where people already lived.
“Columbus Day is not just a holiday, it represents the violent history of colonization in the Western hemisphere,” says Leo Killsback, a professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University.
Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937, in part because of efforts by Roman Catholic Italian Americans. During the late 19th and early 20th century, members of the stigmatized ethnic and religious group successfully campaigned to establish a Columbus Day in order to place Catholic Italians, like Christopher Columbus, into American history. In doing so, they edged out people of Anglo-Saxon descent who wanted a federal holiday honoring Leif Erikson as the first European to reach the Americas.
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But decades later, the question of which European got here “first” is beside the point. “Indigenous Peoples' Day represents a much more honest and fair representation of American values,” writes Killsback, who is a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation of southeastern Montana.
Focus on Native American History
The day also represents a subject that many American students can go through school without ever learning much about. In a 2015 op-ed, Shannon Speed, director of the American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Chickasaw tribal citizen, wrote that “virtually none of my university students has had any education whatsoever in the history of this country’s treatment of the 10 million or so people who lived here before Europeans arrived.”
Indigenous Peoples’ Day offers a fresh focus to history in schools, where many history textbooks leave out Native Americans or sanitize white colonizer’s treatment of them. When the city of Austin adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day in October 2017, the resolution stated that the city wanted to encourage schools to teach this history.
In her op-ed, Speed wrote of her students’ common belief in the “vanishing Indian,” meaning that her students often think of Native Americans as people who lived in the past rather than living people who continue to practice their cultures today.
READ MORE: Native American History
Some Communities Call for Italian Heritage Day
Meanwhile, some Italian American communities have called for a day separate from Columbus Day to celebrate their heritage. For example, in New York City starting in 2021, the Department of Education labeled the holiday as both Indigenous Peoples' Day and Italian Heritage Day.