• (L-R): Art Cedar at the Indigenous Peoples Day in Seattle and Bo Dietl marches in the Columbus Day parade in New York (Getty/AAP)
Is it viable to host a national day that celebrates both, the coloniser and the colonised?
Sophie Verass

10 Oct 2017 - 10:28 AM  UPDATED 10 Oct 2017 - 2:30 PM

Today the United States celebrates their country’s history. But depending on how cooked citizens like their colonialism, it's a choice between two opposing ideologies. 

Well, not quite, and more or less about what city you live in. The second Monday of October (America being one day behind Australia) marks the US national holiday of both, Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day. After years of implementing Columbus Day, in recent times, various city councils and state governments are adopting to Indigenous Peoples Day.    

Columbus Day, pays homage to the Italian-born Spanish maritime explorer who arrived in the Americas in 1492, and Indigenous Peoples Day, promotes Native American culture and the history and contributions of the country’s First Peoples. While Spanish conquerors such as, Juan Ponce de Leon were the first Europeans to arrive in the territory of modern United States in the 1500s, Columbus continues to be seen as the pioneer finding this 'new land' (which at the time, he thought was India). 

As Columbus' expedition is responsible for the European colonisation throughout the American continent, many Latin American countries have variations on the October anniversary, including 'Dia de la Raza' (Day of Race) in Argentina and 'Dia de la Resistencia Indigena' (Day of Indigenous Resistance) in Venezuela.     

But today, having both, a day to celebrate the coloniser and a day which celebrates the colonised isn’t just awkward coincidence in the US. With the public rejecting the sentiment that the European navigator, Christopher Columbus “discovered” a land that was already occupied, the country is seeing more and more states, cities and institutions opting to recognise the long-standing culture and resilience of Native Americans.

Commemorating the anniversary of Columbus' finding of “the new world” has been happening as far back as 1792, but the day didn't receive official ‘holiday’ status in US until the Roosevelt government instigated the calendar event in 1937. The President's decision was largely prompted by Italian-American lobbying groups who wanted to honour the historic figure and their cultural icon. As was the Ethnocentric attitude that Columbus was a "brave navigator" whose 'discovery gave promise to the world', it was not a hard sell. 

Being a country which largely operates on a state-by-state basis, all but six US states participate in Roosevelt’s holiday. Oregon, Alaska, South Dakota, Minnesota, Vermont and Hawaii, either avoid the national day or have adjusted it to be a little more inclusive, and a little less honouring genocide. Hawaii have celebrated ‘Discoverers' Day’, which commemorates the Polynesian voyagers discovering the Hawaiian Islands, and South Dakota pioneering the movement to recognise First Peoples with ‘Native American Day’, established in 1990. In 2016, Vermont became the first state to officially replace Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples Day.

However, the very first US municipal to symbolically rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day was progressive Californian city, Berkeley, who suggested the day should be for protesting against the conquest by Europeans and drawing attention to the losses of Native American tribes after the Quincentennial Jubilee wanted to reenact Columbus' ships sailing underneath the Golden Gate BridgeWhat was once an area densely populated by Indigenous People north of the Valley of Mexico, nearly 60,000 Native Americans died in the missionaries of Spanish settlers. 

Several other city councils followed suit from Berkeley's 1992 decision and now, municiples varying from Albuquerque, New Mexico to St. Paul, Minnesota have adopted Indigenous Peoples Day across the country. Over 50 cities in America now host Indigenous Peoples Day - the most recent being Los Angeles (the largest city thus far), whose officials passed a motion to start adopting Indigenous Peoples Day beginning from 2019.   

Loni Hancock, the 1992 mayor of Berkeley and former California state senator told TIME in 2014, “[Columbus] was one of the first Europeans to get to the American continent, but there was a lot of history that came after that in terms of the wiping out of native people."

"It just didn't seem appropriate. It seemed like a re-emphasising of history and recognising that to be very ethnocentric really diminishes us all." 

"It just didn't seem appropriate. It seemed like a re-emphasising of history and recognising that to be very ethnocentric really diminishes us all." 

Native American leaders also reject the herioc idolisation of Columbus that the day encourages,

"He [Columbus] actually led a lot of devastating movements against Indigenous people," President of the Native American Development Institute Jay Bad Heart Bull told MPR News in 2014, when the state of Minnesota began the process of adopting the change

While it's easy to draw parallels between North America's holiday division and Australia's January 26 debate; citizens and councils shying away from participating in colonial conquest, unlike Australia Day, Columbus Day is not the country's national day and European Columbus' arrival to the Americas is of course, different circumstances to that of Arthur Phillip claiming Australia as property of the UK and the Crown's ongoing British colony.   

Support of Indigenous Peoples Day may seem on the rise, but many US Americans and particularly, the Italian-American community are against - outraged, even -  by the changes. The ABC reported Basil Russo, President of the Order Italian Sons and Daughters of America, as saying, 

"We had a very difficult time in this country for well over a hundred years ... Columbus Day is a day we've chosen to celebrate who we are ... And we're entitled to do that just as they are entitled to celebrate who they [Indigenous Peoples] are."

For the White House though, it's still Columbus Day, which President Donald Trump made clear in his first presidential proclamation of the holiday. Despite Obama including the story of Native Americans in his statement last year, it appears Trump has called 'Columbus' during the flip of the colonial coin.  

"The permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation," Trump wrote

"Therefore, on Columbus Day, we honour the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions -- even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity."

With or without the President's support of Indigenous Peoples Day in America, the increase from South Dakota and Berkeley standing with Indigenous Peoples Day to 59 cities and states aligning in space of 25 years is an indication that this movement is fast growing momentum.

While it might seem strange - divisive, even - to hold two fundamentally different memorials on the same holiday, but rather than being a ying to one another's yang, Indigenous Peoples Day seems like an encroaching presence in the calendar.

The winds are changing, and it appears as though the national identity is too. Perhaps Columbus' is slowly ship setting sail?      

Indigenous Peoples Day, 9 October is an American holiday which commemorates Native American culture. International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, 9 August, celebrates the estimated 370 million Indigenous people worldwide, living across 90 countries. 

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