Decolonize the Holidays: An Alternative to Columbus Day (and Canadian Thanksgiving)

Three states have already dropped Columbus Day, while a movement begins to celebrate Indigenous People's Day instead.
Protest at Columbia University. Photo by Tristin Moone.

Protest at Columbia University. Photo by Tristin Moone.

Yesterday, students at Columbia University lay sprawled on College Walk, many of them wearing red blindfolds intended to erase their individual identity and show solidarity. The event was organized by the university's Native American Council; for them and for indigenous groups throughout the Americas, Columbus Day is no cause for celebration.

The reimagining of Columbus Day is an opportunity to understand the history and legacy of colonialism.

Max Fisher of the Washington Post has suggested that those uncomfortable with Columbus Day can celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving instead. Yet even when masked with a maple leaf, this holiday still glorifies the process of colonization. Luckily, a third option has risen from the grassroots of indigenous activism, one that celebrates neither a perpetrator of genocide nor the colonial takeover of Turtle Island. That's Indigenous People's Day.

In July 1990, as the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean approached, indigenous groups from around the Americas gathered in Quito, Ecuador, for the first Continental Meeting of Indigenous Peoples. In a written declaration to the world, they repudiated the celebration of Columbus Day and reaffirmed their enduring resistance to colonization. Columbus Day, they said, would be turned "into an occasion to strengthen our process of continental unity and struggle towards our liberation."

Since then, the movement to establish Indigenous People's Day has slowly gained ground in the United States. Alaska, Hawai'i and South Dakota do not celebrate Columbus Day, and South Dakota now observes Native American Day instead. Several cities in America have also changed the name of the holiday; Berkeley observes Indigenous People's Day every year with a powwow and market on October 5. A bill currently in committee in the California legislature would rename Columbus Day as Native American Day and also reinstate the day as a paid holiday for state workers. On the religious side, the Unitarian Universalist church has committed itself to activism and education on the subject, with an entire web page dedicated to Indigenous People's Day.

The reimagining of Columbus Day is an opportunity to understand the history and legacy of colonialism, honor the cultures and lives of First Nations peoples, and move forward in the struggle to end oppression.