Slacker’s Syllabus: What Indigenous Peoples’ Day is really all about

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ByRuth Hopkins
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Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a holiday that celebrates Native Americans and recognizes them as the first inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, including the United States.

It also encourages Americans to learn more about Indigenous peoples, and the true history of colonization.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day takes place on the second Monday in October, in place of Columbus Day.

Columbus Day was first observed in New York City in 1792, in honor of the 300th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World.

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But why do away with Columbus Day entirely?
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Natives have protested Columbus Day for decades because:

Christopher Columbus did not discover America.

The false notion that he did negates the existence of Indigenous people in the Americas for thousands of years before he landed.

Prior to his arrival, Native nations had their own governments, built complex civilizations and used extensive trade routes.


Columbus was a genocidal slave trafficker personally responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Arawaks, and he set off a chain of events that led to the decimation of Indigenous populations throughout North, Central, and South America.


The estimated number of Indigenous people who died between 1492 and the mid-1600s due to massacres, enslavement, and the rapid spread of disease introduced to the Western Hemisphere by Europeans.


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  • He forced all Natives older than 14 to provide him with gold every three months. Those who did not had their hands cut off and tied around their necks. More than 10,000 Natives died this way.
  • Columbus sold Native girls as sex slaves — some as young as 9 or 10 years old.
  • He and his men used Native bodies as dog food.
  • In less than two years after Columbus’s arrival, approximately 250,000 enslaved Natives living in what is now present-day Haiti were killed or died by suicide.
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When did Indigenous Peoples’ Day become a holiday?

In 1977, participants of the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replace Columbus Day.

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Columbus Day is still a federal holiday. Columbus Day is still a federal holiday. Columbus Day is still a federal holiday. Columbus Day is still a federal holiday.

Columbus Day is still a federal holiday.

But state and local governments can decide not to celebrate it and establish new holidays, like Indigenous Peoples’ Day, instead.

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South Dakota was the first state to rename Columbus Day. In 1990, it became Native American Day there.

In 1992, Berkeley, California, became the first city to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in protest of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing.

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Other states that officially celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day:
  • Alaska (2017)
  • Maine (2019)
  • New Mexico (2019)
  • Oregon (2017)
  • Vermont (2019)

Hawaii has replaced Columbus Day with Discoverers’ Day, in honor of the Polynesian people who discovered the Hawaiian islands.

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States that observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day via proclamations:

  • Iowa (2018)
  • Louisiana (2019)
  • Michigan (2019)
  • Minnesota (2019)
  • North Carolina (2018)
  • Virginia (2020)
  • Wisconsin (2019)

And . . .

  • Washington, D.C. (2019)
Natives are not extinct.


The number of people in the U.S. who identified as Native American or Alaskan Native in 2020.

U.S. Census Bureau

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Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. ... From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population.

Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. ... Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it. Our children are still taught to respect the violence which reduced a red-skinned people of an earlier culture into a few fragmented groups herded into impoverished reservations.

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