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Cities replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day

In January, San Francisco voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, joining the growing list of cities and states making the symbolic change.

Last October, Austin, Texas, L.A. County in California and Salt Lake City, Utah also joined that list.

Berkeley, California was the first city to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 1992, although the conversation had started years earlier.

Columbus Day was designated for the second Monday of October and has been federally recognized since 1937. It was originally created to recognize the accomplishment of Christopher Columbus’ crossing the Atlantic Ocean and landing on what we now call America. However, Columbus and Columbus Day have also become a symbol of European colonization and the subsequent conquests that led to the destruction of Indigenous peoples’ cultures, populations and the devastation of the surrounding environment.

The significance of this influx of cities changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been one of recognition, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at Mills Melinda Micco believes. Micco is also a registered member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.

“It acknowledges that contribution we made to building the U.S., and while in that building it killed untold numbers of Native peoples,” Micco said.

Indigenous Peoples’ day mostly refers to those indigenous to the U.S., meaning the many Native American tribes. However, the term does not exclude other people of indigenous background who also live in the U.S. Micco said.

“We have shifted the dialogue [to be more positive]. We’re not exclusive,” Micco said. “We’re not trying to harm the planet in any further way.”

Mills student Sam Barnett is a native Chamoru from Guam, one of the last U.S. colonies in the world, and is active in Guam’s movement for independence. She finds Indigenous Peoples’ Day gives indigenous people a space to come together.

“I think there is a big need for solidarity between Indigenous peoples all over the world because we have so many common histories and experiences of colonization,” Barnett said in an email. “I hope that this day will be used to honor the legacies of colonization that our ancestors have experienced and their incredible resilience. I hope that this will be a day for Indigenous peoples from all over the world to tell our stories and fight for sovereignty.”

Mills’ own Indigenous Women’s Alliance was created in 2003, Micco said, originally named the Native American Sisters Alliance.

“Even if we were small, we’re the original people,” Micco said. “We wanted to be acknowledged.”

Micco said she has been working to recruit and retain students with Native American heritage at Mills, and the best way for the administration to welcome students is to recognize them.

“All of [Mills] was once Indian land,” Micco said.

Not only should institutions and governments consider their position, Barnett believes that individual, ordinary people should do the same.

“Recognizing the reality of stolen Indigenous land is a way for settlers to honor and respect Indigenous peoples,” Barnett wrote. “This also represents a reclaiming of narratives and stories. It’s reclaiming space and history by honoring those who have passed but also honoring those are who are still existing.”

Although there has been the trend of cities replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, many Italian-American families continue to celebrate Columbus Day, seeing the day as honoring their Italian descent and recognizing the contributions that Italian-Americans have made to America, according to Al-Jazeera newspaper.

According to the San Francisco Examiner, Guido Perego, president of North Beach’s San Francisco Italian Athletic Club, said that Columbus Day was “meant to be inclusive” and that the supervisors should reconsider.

On a federal level, Columbus day has not been replaced with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Both Barnett and Micco hope that this will change.

“It would be powerful for Columbus Day to change on a federal level because that would mean that the federal government in some way acknowledges that this country was founded on the genocide of Indigenous peoples and land that was stolen,” Barnett wrote. “I think it’s incredibly important that every person who lives on land that they are not Indigenous to acknowledge that they are settlers who profit from Indigenous displacement and historical violence against these peoples.”

Micco is hopeful that change will continue.

“Once you have an event or stance, once you say something oral, there is a sacredness for saying it out loud, but also a responsibility so once the city has acknowledged it, there is a responsibility,” Micco said. “Talk is not idle.”