What is Indigenous Peoples Day? Everything you need to know
10th October 2022

The second Monday of October has been a national holiday for close to a century, but this will be only the second year that Indigenous Peoples Day has held that designation.

Last October, President Joe Biden signed the first presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples Day, a commemoration-turned-holiday that began in 1977 to honor Native American history and culture. That presidential stamp of approval was the most significant boost to date of efforts refocusing a federal holiday that for decades celebrated Christopher Columbus' discovery of America.

Although few Americans are arguing with the notion of being off work come Monday, Columbus Day and Indigenous People's Day have prompted political debate in states, cities and municipalities around the U.S., especially in the past decade, with some pushing against change and others favoring Indigenous Peoples Day instead.

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What is Indigenous Peoples Day?

The celebrating of an Indigenous Peoples Day took root in 1977 at an international conference on discrimination sponsored by the United Nations. It's grown as a day to honor Native American peoples and commemorates their histories and cultures. South Dakota was the first state to recognize the day in 1989, and the California cities of Berkeley and Santa Cruz followed.

In 1990, the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, sponsored by the United Nations, began to discuss replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. California and Tennessee observe Native American Day in September, not conflicting with Columbus Day.

Scott Stevens, the director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program at Syracuse University, said Indigenous Peoples Day is about resilience of what past cultures have endured as much as it is about honoring heritage.

"It is the recognition of our survival and, in many cases, resistance and even flourishing," Stevens told USA TODAY. "There still are a lot of social and economic problems that Indigenous communities experience. There's also this idea that American Indians and Native Americans, that we're all one people. But we have diversity and our cultures are vastly different. One thing we all have in common is that our ancestors suffered because of American colonialism, so it serves as an opportunity where we can turn to each other in unity."

How and where is Indigenous Peoples Day celebrated?

What states and cities celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day?

Over a dozen states and more than 130 local governments have chosen to not celebrate Columbus Day altogether or replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day. Many states celebrate both. Eleven U.S. states celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day or a holiday of a similar name via proclamation, while 10 others treat it as an official holiday. The 10 states that observe the holiday via proclamation are Arizona, California, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, plus Washington, D.C.

And the 10 that officially celebrate it are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont.

Some tribal groups in Oklahoma celebrate Native American Day in lieu of Columbus Day, with some groups naming the day in honor of their individual tribes.

More than 100 cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Denver, Phoenix and San Francisco.

Stevens said that Indigenous Peoples Day being federally recognized paves way for more allies and a space for Americans to educate themselves on a deeper level, as adults, about atrocities throughout U.S. history.

"Having a federal holiday can serve as less of a celebration but more so a recognition to past and present experiences," Stevens said. "I see (Indigenous Peoples Day) as an opportunity to have more critical discussion about our American history, more than what people learn in the fourth grade about the first Thanksgiving and Pocahontas.

"Having a day recognized or having critical discussion is not anti-American. What's anti-American is self-censoring what we've been through," he said.

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Is it offensive to celebrate Columbus Day?

Last year when Biden issued the proclamation for Indigenous Peoples Day, he also issued a proclamation of Columbus Day, established by Congress and first recognized as a national holiday in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In his 2021 speech, Biden praised the role of Italian Americans in U.S. society, but also referenced the violence and harm Columbus and other explorers of the age brought about on the Americas.

"We also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on tribal nations and Indigenous communities,” Biden said. “It is a measure of our greatness as a nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past – that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.”

Though some groups argue that Columbus Day, which is still a federal holiday, celebrates Italian American heritage, many say the holiday glorifies an exploration that led to the genocide of native peoples and paved the way for slavery.

Stevens said celebrating Columbus Day is outdated because of the cyclical and residual hurt caused from the past: "To have had American colonialism looked at throughout history as not being a problem and celebrated as a good thing is deeply problematic to any of us who live in a (Native-American) community or reservation."

Stevens argued some Americans have a tendency to ignore that Native Americans were "forced to be assimilated into Euro-American culture," and hold a misconception that Indigenous communities are only "set in the past."

"We're a minority of three percent in a land that in 1491 was one hundred percent ours," Stevens said.

Although Columbus is credited as the "discoverer" of the New World, millions of people already inhabited the Americas. Columbus made four expeditions to the Caribbean and South America over two decades, enslaving and decimating populations and opening the floodgates of European colonization.

Many groups have called for the removal of monuments to Columbus.

"For over 500 years, Indigenous people have been fighting for their survival, land and rights,” Les Begay, a Diné Nation member and co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples Day Coalition of Illinois, said last October. “Each October, when Columbus is honored, it further diminishes and erases Native people, their history and their culture."

When was Columbus Day established?

Columbus Day celebrations date back to 1792, when New York City celebrated the 300th anniversary of Columbus' landfall. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934 – one of 10 official federal holidays.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story published in 2021.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is Columbus Day offensive? What to know about Indigenous Peoples Day

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