Release Date: 
Monday, October 14, 2019

Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples' Day

A 1507 world map showing the new "discoveries" of Columbus and other explorers
A 1507 world map showing the new "discoveries" of Columbus and other explorers. Courtesy Library of Congress.

This message is one of many messages related to our diverse community’s numerous unique holidays, including cultural, historic, and religious observances throughout the year. I am likely to write about the holidays or cultural observances that mean the most to you as they occur throughout the year. Please let me know if you want to learn my plans about a holiday that is specifically important to you.

On Monday, October 14, our nation celebrates Columbus Day, or, in some places, Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

What are these holidays? Are they the same?

Columbus Day

Columbus Day has long been celebrated in the United States to recognize Christopher Columbus’ landing and explorations on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean. Some viewed this as the initial discovery of the lands now known as America.

Columbus was born in Italy, but sailed under the sponsorship of the Spanish monarchy. At the time, Europeans were looking for sea routes to the Far East. Columbus wanted to find a new route to India, China, Japan, and the Spice Islands, from which he would be able to bring back valuable silks and spices. He knew the world was spherical rather than flat. He believed that by sailing west, instead of south and east around the coast of Africa, he would reach his destination more quickly.

In October 1492, he landed with three ships in what is now the Bahamas.

Columbus made three subsequent trips to what was then called the New World. When he died in 1506, he still believed he had found a new route to the East Indies (Southeast Asia).

Columbus’ travels spearheaded further European exploration, conquest, and colonization of what is now North and South America and the Caribbean. These events took place over the centuries after Columbus’ travels.

The first Columbus Day celebration in America was organized in 1792 by the Society of St. Tammany in New York City, on the 300th anniversary of Columbus' first landing. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison initiated a national celebration of Columbus Day to mark the 400th anniversary. Columbus Day became an official federal holiday in 1971, observed on the second Monday in October. Many federal offices are closed on this day, and U.S. mail is not delivered. Coincidentally, the second Monday in October is also Canadian Thanksgiving Day.

Many historians now believe that Columbus was not the first European explorer to land in the New World. They cite the travels of the Norse explorer Leif Erikson, who is widely believed to have landed in what is now Newfoundland in the year 1000. Some also believe that the Chinese explorer Zheng landed on what is now America’s west coast as early as 1422.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Of course, the lands that Columbus and other European sailors explored were not vacant. Before European settlers arrived, scholars estimate that between 2 and 18 million people already occupied the current continental United States alone, with millions more across the larger New World region.

The European explorers of the time subjected the indigenous people to a great deal of exploitation and violence. For example, Columbus returned to Europe from his first voyage with slaves that he took from the island on which he landed. That history has left a difficult legacy to this day.

For these reasons, some Americans believe that a celebration of Columbus Day is problematic. Columbus Day was established to celebrate a discovery and the beginnings of American heritage. But the holiday does not acknowledge the people who already occupied the New World, much less how they were treated.

In 1992, the city of Berkeley, California established Indigenous Peoples’ Day in an effort to honor the people whom Columbus and other European explorers encountered in the New World. This was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage. In August 1994, the United Nations General Assembly established the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People.

In the ensuing decades, many cities across the U.S. have recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday of October. Detroit began this tradition in 2018. Some cities recognize both Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Columbus Day on the same day. There are other versions of the holiday in different places. Hawaii celebrates Discoverers’ Day on the second Monday of October, and South Dakota celebrates Native American Day. Some Latin American countries celebrate October 12 as the Día de la Raza (Day of the Race).

While Indigenous Peoples’ Day is relatively well known, it is not a federally recognized holiday.

Why is America not named for Columbus?

America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer who traveled to the New World in 1501-1502. He argued that the lands that Christopher Columbus found were part of a separate continent. At the time, this was a revolutionary concept. Previously, Europe, Asia, and Africa were the only lands Western scholars believed existed.

In 1507, German cartographer (map maker) Martin Waldseemüller created the first map of the world that showed this “new” continent with the name “America,” a Latinized version of “Amerigo.” The name stuck.

Christopher Columbus is honored in place names. Today, more than 30 U.S. states have a city named Columbus or Columbia. South Carolina’s capital is Columbia. Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia), is named after Columbus, as is the Canadian province of British Columbia. Many locales in Central and South America, including the nation of Colombia, are named for him, as are various place names such as Colombo and Colón.

Celebrations and observances

In some cities and towns, there are parades or other outdoor celebrations on Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Some schools host educational programs on or near the day. Some people spend the day enjoying food and festivities with family and friends.

San Francisco claims the nation’s oldest continuously existing celebration, with the Italian-American community’s annual Columbus Day Parade, running since 1868. New York City claims the largest national parade, with more than 35,000 participants and a million visitors.

Some states do not celebrate Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an official state holiday. Others mark it as a Day of Observance or Day of Recognition.

At Henry Ford College, we are proud of our multicultural community, which includes race, national heritage, and myriad expressions of religion, culture, history, and other forms of human diversity. We welcome every opportunity to learn about, and from, people who are different from us. This knowledge and recognition makes us stronger, and better able to support and connect with our campus and local community. I encourage you to do that on this holiday, as every holiday.

Russ Kavalhuna
Henry Ford College