As the schoolhouse rhyme goes, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but the holiday celebrating the Spanish-funded Italian navigator’s discovery of the New World (or “Asia,” as he called it) is much more recent. It wasn’t until 1792 that several U.S. cities planned Columbus celebrations timed to the 300th anniversary of the explorer’s arrival. That year, the Columbian Order, a fraternal society that would grow over the next century into the all-powerful Tammany Hall political machine, headed New York’s observance. For the Order, the dual figures of Columbus and Tammany (an idealized Native American) were symbols of American separateness from European power and fashion.
During the 19th century, Columbus Day celebrations grew to become celebrations of Italian-American culture (and thus tended to be denounced by anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic activists). Nonetheless, in 1893 Chicago hosted the World Columbian Exposition, an immensely popular world’s fair marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing. The first state holiday celebrating Columbus was established in 1905 by Colorado. In 1937 president Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Columbus Day a federal holiday.
Columbus Day was not widely observed in the rest of the Americas—or in Christopher Columbus’s European homelands—until the 20th century. Starting in 1917, Latin American countries increasingly marked October 12 as “Dia de la Raza” (Day of the Race), a commemoration of the mixing of indigenous American, European and African ethnicities that began with Columbus’ first encounter with people whose ancestors had, of course, discovered the Americas several thousand years earlier.
The true story behind the 1st Memorial Day
Here's a trivia question for armchair historians: Was the first Memorial Day celebrated in Columbus, Georgia, or Columbus, Mississippi?
According to strict calendric interpretation, Columbus, Mississippi, celebrated the holiday first, on April 25, 1866, but only because newspaper editors fudged the date, said Richard Gardiner, an associate professor of history education at Columbus State University in Georgia, and co-author of "The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday" (Columbus State University, 2014).
Columbus, Georgia, where the concept of honoring the soldiers who died in the American Civil War originated, celebrated it a day later, on April 26, 1866, along with dozens of other cities, Gardiner said.
Columbus, Mississippi, may have celebrated Memorial Day first, but "what's not true is that they came up with the idea," Gardiner told Live Science.
In fact, there are many contenders for where Memorial Day started. Some say it started in Waterloo, New York, in 1866, and President Lyndon B. Johnson even signed a proclamation saying so in 1966. But historians have since discredited that claim, Gardiner said. Still, some people still trumpet the claim, including the village of Waterloo itself.
Here's why: In the 1880s, a reporter interviewed a source who thought that Waterloo celebrated the day in 1866, but the newspaper later ran a correction saying it was actually 1868. Still, not every newspaper that ran the story included the correction, leading some people to think that Waterloo was the first to celebrate the holiday that Americans call Memorial Day, Gardiner said.
Others, including David Blight, a professor of history at Yale University, say the first Memorial Day happened in Charleston, South Carolina, according to The New York Times. On May 1, 1865, workmen honored and buried dead soldiers from the Union Army at a racetrack that had been turned into a war prison, Blight told The New York Times.
However, there's no evidence that this event sparked the national holiday, Gardiner said. People have honored dead soldiers and decorated their graves since the beginning of time, he added.
"It's not a question of who was the first person to decorate a grave," Gardiner said. "That does not create a holiday."
Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. On Oct. 12, 517 years later, banks are closed and there's no mail. And despite being a federal holiday, for most in the U.S. it's another day at the office.
Observed on the second Monday in October, the holiday celebrates the achievements of Christopher Columbus, a man who lived almost three centuries before the U.S. Federal Government even existed, much less created a holiday in his honor. But for such a loosely observed federal holiday, Columbus Day generates no small amount of controversy: the day, like the man himself, is reviled by critics who feel Columbus' arrival in the New World opened the doors to hundreds of years of exploitation and genocide. Is it really worth it? (Read "The Trouble with Columbus.")
Many Italian Americans in particular think so. Columbus Day has its roots in cultural pride, a celebration of the Italian explorer's "discovery" of the Americas when he landed on a Caribbean island in what's now the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492. The 300-year anniversary of Columbus' landing prompted the first recorded celebration of the achievement, in New York City in 1792. On the 400th anniversary, President Benjamin Harrison issued the first official proclamation urging Americans to celebrate the day. It led the Knights of Columbus, an organization with a largely Italian, Roman Catholic membership, to lobby heavily for states and the Federal Government to make Columbus Day official. Franklin Roosevelt created the first federal observance of Columbus Day in 1937 Richard Nixon established the modern holiday by presidential proclamation in 1972.
New York City continues to show Columbus Day pride the city holds the largest parade for it in the country. But these public shows of support draw frequent protests from Native Americans, who make the point that Columbus discovered nothing indigenous populations were living in the Americas long before European explorers made their first tentative trips across the Atlantic. And once here, Columbus wasn't exactly kind to his new neighbors. Indeed, on his very first day in the New World, Columbus took six natives as slaves. He'd go on to press thousands more into forced labor, killing dissenters. Even his own colonists didn't like him complaints led him to be called back by his Spanish royal sponsors in 1500. (See pictures of Italians in America.)
All that casts a bit of a pall over celebrations of the man's achievements a pall that has extended to the holiday itself. While Colorado became the first state to set aside a day in Columbus' honor, in 1907, in recent years Denver's parade has been disrupted by angry protesters. This year an unknown hoaxster notified the media (falsely) that this year's parade was canceled. But organizers are undeterred, telling the Wall Street Journal that "the parade will not be stopped."
And neither will Columbus Day itself, at least not anytime soon. While there have been some efforts to get its federal-holiday status revoked, many seem content to simply ignore the holiday entirely. The two exceptions are retailers, for whom Columbus Day is the first big sales opportunity after August's back-to-school rush, and those who have repurposed the holiday into something less problematic (South Dakotans, for example, celebrate Native Americans Day instead). But relax, weary workers. Thanksgiving's little more than a month away, and that, at least, is a federal holiday most of us can agree is worthy of a day off.
In 1990, the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, sponsored by the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, began to discuss replacing Columbus Day in the United States with a celebration to be known as Indigenous Peoples' Day.  Similarly, Native American groups staged a sort of protest in Boston instead of Thanksgiving, which has been celebrated there to mark collaboration between Massachusetts colonists and Native Americans in the first years. In July 1990, at the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance in Quito, Ecuador, representatives of indigenous people throughout the Americas agreed that they would mark 1992, the 500th anniversary of the first of the voyages of Christopher Columbus, as a year to promote "continental unity" and "liberation". 
After the conference, attendees from Northern California organized protests against the "Quincentennial Jubilee" that had been organized by the United States Congress for the San Francisco Bay Area on Columbus Day in 1992 [ citation needed ] . It was to include replicas of Columbus's ships sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge and reenacting their "discovery" of America. The delegates formed the Bay Area Indian Alliance and in turn, the "Resistance 500" task force.  It promoted the idea that Columbus's "discovery" of inhabited lands and the subsequent European colonization of them had resulted in the genocide of indigenous peoples because of the decisions which were made by colonial and national governments.  
In 1992, the group convinced the city council of Berkeley, California, to declare October 12 as a "Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People" and 1992 as the "Year of Indigenous People". The city implemented related programs in schools, libraries, and museums. The city symbolically renamed Columbus Day as "Indigenous Peoples' Day" beginning in 1992 to protest the historical conquest of North America by Europeans, and to call attention to the losses suffered by the Native American peoples and their cultures through diseases, warfare, massacres, and forced assimilation.   Get Lost (Again) Columbus, an opera by a Native American composer, White Cloud Wolfhawk, was produced that day.  Berkeley has celebrated Indigenous Peoples' Day ever since.  Beginning in 1993, Berkeley has also held an annual pow wow and festival on Indigenous Peoples' Day. 
In the years following Berkeley's action, other local governments and institutions have either renamed or canceled Columbus Day, either to celebrate Native American history and cultures, to avoid celebrating Columbus and the European colonization of the Americas, or due to raised controversy over the legacy of Columbus.  Several other California cities, including Richmond, Santa Cruz, and Sebastopol, now celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day and encourage people to donate to a neighboring tribe and recognize the trauma and pain indigenous peoples have been subjected to by colonizers. 
At least thirteen states do not celebrate Columbus Day (Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, DC Wisconsin) South Dakota officially celebrates Native American Day instead.    Various tribal governments in Oklahoma designate the day as "Native American Day", or have renamed the day after their own tribes.  In 2013, the California state legislature considered a bill, AB55, to formally replace Columbus Day with Native American Day but did not pass it.  On August 30, 2017, following similar affirmative votes in Oberlin, Ohio,  followed later by Bangor, Maine, in the earlier weeks of the same month,  the Los Angeles City Council voted in favor of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day.  On October 10, 2019, just a few days before Columbus Day would be celebrated in Washington, D.C., the D.C. Council voted to temporarily replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day.  This bill was led by Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) and must undergo congressional approval to become permanent. 
Numerous efforts in North America have honored Native American people as part of Columbus Day, or by designating two holidays for the same date.  Especially since Native American activism has increased since the 1960s and 1970s, a variety of protests have been staged against celebrating Columbus Day.  These have included mock trials of Christopher Columbus in St. Paul, Minnesota,  and protests and disruptions of Columbus Day parades in the United States. 
Indigenous peoples in other nations have also lobbied to have holidays established to recognize their contributions and history. In South America, for instance, Brazil celebrates "National Indigenous Peoples' Day" on April 19. 
In Asia, Taiwan designated August 1 as Indigenous Peoples' Day in 2016 under the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen, who announced that the government is committed to promoting the rights of Taiwan's indigenous peoples and enhancing public awareness of their culture and history.  In the Philippines, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, as well as various local indigenous towns, designated October 29, 2008, as Indigenous Peoples' Day. 
Native American Day Edit
Some states celebrate a separate but similar Native American Day however, this is observed not on Columbus Day but in September. Those who observe include the states of California and Tennessee. In Washington state it is celebrated the Friday immediately following the fourth Thursday in November.
International Day of the World's Indigenous People Edit
In 1994, the United Nations declared an International Day of the World's Indigenous People, establishing it on August 9.  This international holiday has been celebrated also in various nations.  
The following locations celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day instead of Columbus Day, with the exceptions of Lewiston, New York,  Tompkins County, New York,  West Hartford, Connecticut,  and Lawton, Oklahoma,  which celebrate both. Akron, Ohio celebrates the Indigenous Peoples' Day on the first Monday of October as "North American First People's Day", and Columbus Day has been since renamed as "Italian-American Heritage and Culture Day".  
Elsewhere on timeanddate.com
On Independence Day, Americans celebrate the anniversary of publication of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776.
Tisha B’Av is on the ninth day of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar.
Eid-al-Adha is an Islamic festival to mark Ibrahim's willingness to follow Allah's command to sacrifice his son. It is celebrated around the 10th to 13th days of the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah.
Pioneer Day is an annual state holiday in Utah in the United States. It is celebrated to honor the pioneers who demonstrated industry and bravery when they ventured to settle in a place that is now Salt Lake City.
How the Columbus Day Holiday is Slowly Being Replaced—and Why
Throughout its history, Columbus Day, a holiday celebrating the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492, has generated controversy. Critics say that Columbus doesn’t deserve acclaim, since his voyages brought disease and wars to the this continent that eventually brutalized Native Americans. Others want to honor his courageous exploration across the Atlantic Ocean.
Columbus Day first began to be celebrated in some U.S. cities and states as early as the 18th century, but it was named an official federal holiday in 1937. Most banks and courthouses are closed, and though some stores will mark the occasion with promotions like “Columbus Day Savings,” many other businesses don’t bother to call out the day.
Have you checked out our Columbus Day Sale?! Over 1000 items at 30% off. One week only! https://t.co/1WGLYnJY8w pic.twitter.com/3hTSxCswcl
— SwimOutlet.com (@SwimOutlet) October 4, 2018
So, we decided to break down the holiday—and the controversy.
Christopher Columbus set sail from the port of Palos de la Frontera, Spain, in August 1492 with backing from the Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. His goal: to chart a lucrative western sea route to China, India, and the rumored spice islands of Asia. But instead, on October 12, he landed in the Bahamas—on the island the indigenous people called Guanahani (which he renamed San Salvador Island.). This feat made him the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings set up colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland during the 10th century. Columbus also spotted Cuba, which he thought was China, and then in December, he and his crew arrived Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean, and established Spain’s first colony in the Americas. When he returned to Europe he brought spices, gold and “Indian” captives—it is reported that he kidnapped six West Indies natives the first day he made landfall and forced them to be his servants.
Over the next eight years, Columbus made three more Transatlantic expeditions. On his third voyage in 1498, he realized that he had not reached Asia, but instead had accidentally found a continent whose existence had been erased from the collective memory of most of Europe.
New York’s Columbian Order, a political organization that later became renowned for graft and corruption under the moniker Tammany Hall, held an event in 1792 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the day Columbus landed in America. Then in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation telling Americans to mark the 400th anniversary with “patriotic activities.” But it wasn’t until 1937 that it became a national holiday under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the holiday was seen as a day to celebrate for Italian-Americans and Catholics. Churches and organizations like the Knights of Columbus would use the day to condemn discrimination against Catholics.
Historians point out that, despite his altruistic portrayal in many books, Columbus actually enslaved many indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and sent thousands of them back to Spain to be sold. Within 60 years of Columbus’ landing, only a few hundred Taino natives were left, a massive drop from the community of 250,000 that existed upon his first arrival. As a result, Columbus’s reputation as an intrepid explorer has been re-appraised and he is now seen as more of a colonizer who led to the decimation of American indigenous populations. Others argue that the holiday does not even celebrate the discovery of America, but instead is glorifying the mass genocide and subjugation of indigenous peoples.
The simmering culture war going on in Google’s default holiday calendar. pic.twitter.com/pjqkjFYEEY
— Antonio García Martínez (@antoniogm) September 29, 2018
In the 1990s, criticism about the explorer’s legacy became more visible in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, and Berkeley, California. In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing, Berkeley became the first city in the U.S. to replace the Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Likewise, Minnesota, Vermont, and Alaska no longer celebrate Columbus Day as a state holiday and instead recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In South Dakota, the state government celebrates Native American Day on the same day as the federal Columbus Day holiday.
Here are the other cities that choose to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day (part of this list was collected by Time):
- City of Los Angeles
- Los Angeles County
- Berkeley, Calif.
- Santa Cruz, Calif.
- San Fernando, Calif.
- Burbank, Calif.
- Long Beach, Calif.
- San Luis Obispo, Calif.
- Watsonville, Calif.
- Olympia, Wash.
- Spokane, Wash.
- Bainbridge Island, Wash.
- Grand Rapids, Minn.
- St. Paul, Minn. , Montana
- Durango, Colo.
- Boulder, Colo.
- Ann Arbor, Mich , Mich.
- Traverse City, Mich.
- Alpena, Mich.
- East Lansing, Mich.
- Ypsilanti, Mich.
- Albuquerque, N.M.
- Santa Fe, N.M. , North Dakota
- Eugene, Ore. , Ore.
- Newstead, New York
- Village of Lewiston, New York (celebrates both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day)
- Ithaca, New York
- Anadarko, Okla.
- Norman, Okla.
- Tulsa, Okla. (celebrates Native American Day)
- Tahlequah, Okla.
- Carrboro, N.C.
- Asheville, N.C.
- Belfast, Maine
- Bangor, Maine
- Orono, Maine
- Brunswick, Maine (celebrates both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day)
- Portland, Maine
- Bexar County, Texas
- Cambridge, Mass.
- Amherst, Mass.
- Northampton, Mass.
- Harpers Ferry, W.Va. , Va.
- Lawrence, Ks.
- Davenport, Iowa , Iowa
- Durham, N.H.
- Moscow, Idaho
- Oberlin, Ohio
- Salt Lake City
- Austin, Texas
- Madison, Wis.
And these four cities just changed their holiday recognition policies in 2018.
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National Museum of the American IndianCalifornia Natives gather in front of City Hall to celebrate Los Angeles's second annual Indigenous Peoples Day. October 14, 2019, Los Angeles, California. (Photo courtesy of Helena Tsosie)
“The most American thing about America is American Indians.” — Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche)
T he first documented observance of Columbus Day in the United States took place in New York City in 1792, on the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the Western Hemisphere. The holiday originated as an annual celebration of Italian–American heritage in San Francisco in 1869. In 1934, at the request of the Knights of Columbus and New York City’s Italian community, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared the first national observance of Columbus Day. President Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress made October 12 a national holiday three years later. In 1972 President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making the official date of the holiday the second Monday in October.
Generations of Native people, however, throughout the Western Hemisphere have protested Columbus Day. In the forefront of their minds is the fact the colonial takeovers of the Americas, starting with Columbus, led to the deaths of millions of Native people and the forced assimilation of survivors.
In 1977 participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replace Columbus Day. Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that Native people are the first inhabitants of the Americas, including the lands that later became the United States of America. And it urges Americans to rethink history.
The movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day has gained momentum and spread to states, cities, and towns across the United States. The first state to rename Columbus Day was South Dakota in 1990. Hawai’i has also changed the name of its October 12 holiday to Discovers’ Day, in honor of the Polynesian navigators who peopled the islands. Berkeley, California, became the first city to make the change in 1992, when the city council renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In 2015 an estimated 6,000 Native people and their supporters gathered at Randall’s Island, New York, to recognize the survival of the Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. The demonstration’s success and the worldwide media attention it attracted planted the seeds for creating an Indigenous Peoples’ Day in New York City. This year the nation’s capital passed a resolution to change the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Universities and schools across the country are also observing the new commemoration.
These states and the District of Columbia now observe Native American or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in place of or in addition to Columbus Day. Most of them have followed the lead of their cities and smaller communities, a list that has happily grown too long to include here
▪︎ District of Columbia
▪︎ New Mexico
▪︎ North Carolina
▪︎ South Dakota
Native students, faculty members, and friends from North and South America gather to honor Johns Hopkins University's first Indigenous Peoples Day. October 11, 2018, Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo courtesy of Tom Jefferson Jr.)
Even so, mythology about Columbus and the “discovery” of the Americas continues to be many American children’s first classroom lesson about encountering different cultures, ethnicities, and peoples. Teaching more accurate and complete narratives and differing perspectives is key to our society’s rethinking its history. In the last few years, the museum has hosted Indigenous Peoples’ Curriculum Days and Teach-Ins at the beginning of the school year in Washington, New York, and this year on line. Teaching for Change , a Washington-based national education organization, and the museum’s Education Office work with teachers of students from kindergarten through 12th grade in sessions that range from student activism to defend the environment or abolish Columbus Day to skills such as critical literacy, art, and facilitated dialogue to inquiry-based lessons available through the museum’s online education initiative Native Knowledge 360° .
In 2018 Sarah Shear, assistant professor of Social Studies Education at Penn State University–Altoona, gave the keynote presentation, based on research on U.S. history standards from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In 2015, Dr. Shear and her collaborators Ryan T. Knowles, Gregory J. Soden, and Antonio J. Castro published data showing that 87 percent of the references to Native Americans in U.S. curricula are in the context of American history before 1900. “The narrative presented in U.S. history standards,” they write, “when analyzed with a critical eye, directed students to see Indigenous Peoples as a long since forgotten episode in the country’s development.” Shear and her colleaguse see serious implications in the way the United States teaches its history:
When one looks at the larger picture painted by the quantitative data, it is easy to argue that the narrative of U.S. history is painfully one sided in its telling of the American narrative, especially with regard to Indigenous Peoples’ experiences. . . .
The qualitative findings further illuminate a Euro-American narrative that reinstitutes the marginalization of Indigenous cultures and knowledge. Indigenous Peoples are left in the shadows of Euro-America’s destiny, while the cooperation and conflict model provides justification for the eventual termination of Indigenous Peoples from the American landscape and historical narrative. Finally, a tone of detachment, especially with long lists of legal and political terms, dismisses the humanity of Indigenous cultures and experiences in the United States.
In 2019, the co-editors of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States—librarian and educator Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh) and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz—headlined workshops in Washington and New York. Reese, founder of the highly respected resource American Indians in Children's Literature, describe their work on An Indigenous People's History as shining bright lights on historic episodes that are left out of most books. “As much as we could,” Reese says, “we wanted to give readers the kind of information that’s known within Native families, communities, and nations. We believe that it is vital that all citizens of the United States know more about the people whom we regard, as a society, as being heroic. There are different points of view.”
This year, more than 250 teachers in the United States and around the world attended the 2020 Indigenous Peoples’ Day Virtual Teach-In, which focused on Food and Water Justice. Winona LaDuke (member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg of the White Earth Teservation) gave the keynote presentation on the importance of biodiversity, especially in light of climate change and the pandemic. Two rounds of workshops followed, using classroom resources from the museum’s national education intitiative, Native Knowledge 360°, and the Zinn Education Project’s Teach Climate Justice. Videos of the keynote address and the workshops The Inka Empire: What Innovations Can Provide Food and Water for Millions? and American Indian Responses to Environmental Challenges are available online. (Workshops that included interactive lessons with breakout rooms were not recorded.)
Things are changing. This year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, states, cities, towns, counties, community groups, churches, universities, schools, and other institutions are observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day primarily with virtual activities that raise awareness of the rich history, culture, and traditions of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. They do so thanks to Native people and their allies who gathered for decades—and will gather again when we can do so safely—at prayer vigils, powwows, symposiums, concerts, lectures, rallies, and classrooms to help America rethink American history.
Today at 1 p.m. Eastern time, join us online for a special Indigenous Peoples’ Day presentation of Youth in Action: Conversations about Our Future. How do our memories of the past inform and influence the current racial and social landscape? Hear young Native activists share their thoughts on history and memory, and how current movements happening across America reflect the tension between different ways of looking at the past. With a performance by hip hop artist Frank Waln (Sicangu Lakota) and an introduction by Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian. In a companion post on Smithsonian Voices, the museum shares more suggestions for celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day from home.
In a companion post on Smithsonian Voices, the museum shares more suggestions for celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day from home.
Renée Gokey (citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma) is the teacher services coordinator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. This post was originally published on October 7, 2018. It has been updated for Indigenous People’s Day 2019 and 2020.
This post was originally published on October 7, 2018. It has been updated for Indigenous People’s Day 2019 and 2020.
Early in the morning of October 12, 1492, a sailor on board the Pinta sighted land, beginning a new era of European exploration and expansion. The next day, the ninety crew members of Columbus’ three-ship fleet ventured onto the Bahamian island that he named San Salvador (now Watling Island, and then called Guanahaní by the natives), ending a voyage begun nearly ten weeks earlier in Palos, Spain.
Promontory of Florida. Photoreproduction from Theodor de Bry and Charles de la Roncière, La Floride Française: Scènes de la vie Indiennes, peintes en 1564 [facsimile of the 1564 original (Paris, 1928)]. 1492: An Ongoing Voyage. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
As a reward for his valuable discovery, the Spanish crown granted Columbus the right to bear arms. His new coat of arms added the royal charges of Castile and Leon and an image of islands to his traditional family crest. Columbus further modified the design to include a continent beside the pictured islands.
Before his final voyage, the Spanish monarchs prepared a Book of Privileges, a collection of agreements showing how Columbus was remunerated for his explorations. In 1502, four copies of the book were known to exist. The Library of Congress’s copy of this work is one of the Top Treasures included in the online exhibition American Treasures of the Library of Congress.
The first recorded celebration of Columbus Day in the United States took place on October 12, 1792. Organized by the Society of St. Tammany, also known as the Columbian Order, it commemorated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing.
[Christopher Columbus]. Photograph of a painting, c1908. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division
The 400th anniversary of the event inspired the first official Columbus Day holiday in the United States. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in 1892, “recommending to the people the observance in all their localities of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America…” and describing Columbus as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” Since then, school programs, plays, and community festivities have been organized across the country in celebration of Columbus Day. Columbus and the Discovery of America, Imre Kiralfy’s “grand dramatic, operatic, and ballet spectacle,” is among the more elaborate tributes created for this commemoration. The World’s Columbian Exposition or Chicago’s World’s Fair, which opened in the summer of 1893, was designed to commemorate Columbus’ discovery of the New World 400 years earlier.
K.[nights] of Columbus. McGranahan & McIntyre, c1914. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division
In the decades that followed, the Knights of Columbus, an international Roman Catholic fraternal benefit society, lobbied state legislatures to declare October 12 a legal holiday. Colorado was the first state to do so on April 1, 1907. New York declared Columbus Day a holiday in 1909 and on October 12, 1909, New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes led a parade that included the crews of two Italian ships, several Italian-American societies, and legions of the Knights of Columbus. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt designated Columbus Day (then celebrated October 12) a national holiday in 1934.
Since 1971, when Columbus Day was designated the second Monday in October, it has been celebrated as a federal holiday. In many locations across the country Americans hold parades to commemorate the day.
Hammock. In Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, La Historia general y natural de las Indias. (Seville, 1535). 1492: An Ongoing Voyage. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Oviedo came to America in 1514 and for over thirty years compiled detailed ethnographic descriptions of the goods, products, peoples, and customs of the Caribbean and Central America. The hammock was first introduced to Europeans during Columbus’ first voyage of 1492.
My Wife Posing with One of the Lions at the Base of the Cristl Colón Monument in Barcelona, Spain
One of the eight lions at the base of the Columbus Monument in Barcelona, Spain.
Photo © 2012 by Chuck Nugent
Why celebrate Columbus Day? Here are a few reasons
Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, is a nationally recognized holiday.
But it’s not recognized in Los Angeles, where I live. The City Council recently voted to get rid of Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, commemorating “indigenous, aboriginal and native people.”
This movement sees Columbus as a symbol of destruction, and thus not to be celebrated.
This new day was first adopted in Berkeley, California in 1992. Since then, it’s spread across the nation with increasing speed, as more than 60 cities from Maine to Washington have supported the idea.
While there is plenty to criticize about Columbus, and what followed his arrival, I think this movement is missing the point.
History, in fact, is the story of conquest. We may not like it, but it’s our shared heritage. Not just Europeans, but everyone. The point is not to excuse the worst that happened, but to understand it.
It is true that the conquest of the Americas by Europeans, which starts with Columbus, was very ugly, and involved a lot of violence. But that, for better or worse, is how history worked pretty much everywhere for thousands of years. (Though it should be noted a large portion of the deaths of Native Americans was due to disease, not violence--an inevitable consequence of Old World illness in New World soil. Europe, Asia and Africa, of course, suffered through numerous plagues of their own.).
History, in fact, is the story of conquest. We may not like it, but it’s our shared heritage. Not just Europeans, but everyone. While there is only limited knowledge of what pre-Columbus America was like, it did feature war, slavery, torture and plenty of brutality.
The point is not to excuse the worst that happened, but to understand it. And to see that it is not the essence of Columbus, but rather part of the times. With all that, there are reasons to celebrate Columbus Day.
-- Celebrate Italians (though there is some question as to whether Columbus would have considered himself an Italian -- he was long thought to have been born in Genoa, then an independent city-state in what is now Italy, though everyone from Greece to Portugal to Poland have claimed him as their own). Nevertheless, Italians claim him today and Columbus Day is a good chance to recognize what Italians have contributed to America, and the world.
-- Celebrate the spirit of exploration. It took tremendous bravery to sail off into the unknown. One of the best parts of our humanity is that sense of discovery.
-- Celebrate the spread of Western civilization. Lately a lot of people have been putting down Western civilization, but its spread is one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to humanity.
The West has its good and bad points, but its best ideas—equal rights, freedom of religion, free speech, due process, open scientific inquiry, property rights and so on—have helped all people who adopt them. (Not that the West solely had these ideas, but it put them in a package that wasn’t generally available elsewhere.)
Indeed, the promise of the West has delivered freedom and bounty such as humanity has never known.
And, while we celebrate Columbus Day, we can learn from history and also take time to honor Native Americans. They were the original immigrants to the New World, and deserve their remembrance.
Once we do this, Columbus Day can be a truly inclusive holiday. It needn’t be a battleground, but a chance to celebrate the best within us.
Columbus Day commemorates the landing of Italian-born navigator Christopher Columbus in the New World—i.e., the Americas—on October 12, 1492. It is a federal holiday in the United States, observed on the second Monday in October. The day typically involves parades, ceremonies, and celebrations for those who observe the occasion. Some celebrate Italian-American heritage on this day.
The day is also used as an opportunity to talk about what happened after Columbus arrived: the European colonization of the Americas and how it adversely affected the indigenous inhabitants. In some Latin American countries, the focus of the October 12 anniversary is on the indigenous peoples rather than Columbus’s arrival, with, for example, Día de la Raza (“Day of the Race” or “Day of the People”) being observed on that date in several countries and Día de la Resistencia Indígena (“Day of Indigenous Resistance”) being observed in Venezuela.
Spain also commemorates the anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. It was Ferdinand II and Isabella I, Spain’s monarchs at the time, who sponsored the voyage that resulted in his “discovery” of the New World and led to extensive Spanish colonization there. For many years Spain celebrated October 12 as Día de la Hispanidad (“Hispanic Day”) and, since 1987, has observed it as Fiesta Nacional de España (“National Day of Spain”).