Until I lived in New Jersey, I had no idea that Columbus Day, which commemorates Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, could be such a big deal. My son and many other children in New Jersey have the day off from school and there’s a big parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City, along with parades throughout towns in New Jersey. Town halls throughout Hudson County where I work are closed (my college is too) and parking rules are suspended (a big deal if you’ve tried to fit your car into some of Jersey City’s one-way, narrow, car-clogged streets).
Growing up in the 1970s in suburban Contra Costa County in northern California, we did not have the day off from school. We dutifully memorized the names of the Niña, Pinta and the Santa Maria and who Ferdinand, Isabella and Amerigo Vespucci were. We also learned about why Columbus called the people he encountered “Indians” and, too, about why it was more accurate to say “Native Americans”: They were here first, indeed. Then we learned about Ishi, the last survivor of the Yahi tribe in California. When we studied about the Spanish explorers like Balboa and Cortez and the growth of the missions, we also learned about how Native Americans were forced from their land and died from the diseases the Europeans brought with them.
The idea for Indigenous People’s Day as an alternative, and even a replacement, for Columbus Day occurred in 1977, at a United Nations sponsored conference in Geneva, Switzerland about the discrimination of the indigenous people in the Americas. The first Indigenous People’s Day was celebrated in Berkeley when activists advocated for the Berkeley City Council to declare October 12 “Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People.”
Two other cities in California, Sebastopol and Santa Cruz, also celebrate Indigenous People’s Day while South Dakota and Alabama have renamed the holiday “Native American Day.” Hawaii now celebrates “Discover’s Day,” to commemorate the Polynesian discovers of Hawaii. San Francisco’s Columbus Day Parade is said to be the nation’s oldest continuously existing celebration; it and many other American cities either celebrate “Italian Heritage Day” or have cancelled their observances. Columbus, Ohio, has not celebrated “Columbus Day” since the 1990s, due to the controversy surrounding the Italian explorer’s legacy.
When I’ve mentioned “Indigenous People’s Day” as an alternative to Columbus Day to my students here in New Jersey I’ve gotten a puzzled response (students of Italian heritage easily outnumber students of Native American descent here in New Jersey). They’ve grown up with Columbus Day and celebrations for it and understand the controversy about Columbus, but celebrations for the holiday are well-established. I’m teaching classical mythology this semester and we have been studying some Native American myths, about the creation of the world and Coyote, a trickster figure. Most students have never read about these topics before.
Even if your community still wishes to celebrate “Columbus Day,” shouldn’t celebration of the indigenous people — and mention of the plentiful injustices they have faced — be part of the day’s commemorations?
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