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The History Behind the Movement to Replace Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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While the Federal Government will close for Columbus Day, which was made official by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, some U. S. cities will mark the day in a different way, choosing rather to focus on the original inhabitants of the land to which Christopher Columbus sailed.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first adopted by the Berkeley, Calif., City Council on Oct. 22, 1991, and observed the following year with activities and cultural events throughout the city and Bay area in lieu of the Columbus Quincentennial, marking the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the Americas. Its purpose, according to the IPD 1992 event flyer, was, “to express appreciation for our survival, acknowledgement of our contribution to today’s world community, and to commemorate our fallen patriots.” This year marks the 25th annual commemoration in that city, and many other municipalities will follow suit, as polarization around this history deepens in light of discussion of whether public memorials to Columbus ought to come down.

This controversy represents a marked departure from the attitude FDR displayed when he pronounced Columbus Day a celebration of the “promise which Columbus’s discovery gave to the world.” A document that sheds light on how the day was first reconsidered was recently published by the Indigenous Peoples Day Committee to commemorate its diamond anniversary. Indigenous Peoples Day: A Handbook for Activists and Documentary History provides details of the early years of this growing movement.

Though the first Indigenous Peoples’ Day was celebrated in the early 1990s, the idea took shape many years earlier. According to the book’s curator John Curl, the first seeds of the idea to commemorate the histories and cultures of indigenous peoples throughout the Americas in lieu of Columbus Day were planted in 1977, in Geneva, at the first International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas. The conference included “the first, the widest and most united representation of indigenous nations” in modern history, Curl writes. By the conclusion of the conference, a list of recommendations were drafted, outlining a course of action to support indigenous peoples right to self-determination. And there in Article 1 of the Geneva Resolution was the foremost contention of the conference: a rebuttal to the doctrine of discovery. The conference attendees stated their intention “to observe October 12, the day of so-called ‘discovery’ of America, as an International Day of Solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.”

Yet the idea remained dormant for years. Then, in 1984, President Reagan appointed the U.S. Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission “to plan, encourage, coordinate, and conduct the commemoration of the voyages of Christopher Columbus.” Reagan’s uncritical acceptance of the discovery narrative was clearly demonstrated two years later in his Columbus Day Proclamation when he stated, “This great explorer won a place in history and in the hearts of all Americans because he challenged the unknown and thereby found a New World.”

As Reagan’s romanticism of the 1492 event suggest, the Columbus Quincentennial was to be an international jubilee. Spain agreed to create replicas of Columbus’ three ships and sail them to Miami, to arrive in February 1992. The ships would set anchor in various cities along the east coast and arrive in the Boston Harbor in August, after which barges would tow them to Panama and then up the west coast.

It was amid that planning that the first Continental Conference on Five Hundred Years of Indigenous Resistance was held in 1990 in Quito, Ecuador. Curl notes that the representatives at the conference were unambiguous in their opposition to the forthcoming event. “[We affirm] our emphatic rejection of the Quincentennial celebration,” they wrote in the Quito Declaration, “and the firm promise that we will turn that date into an occasion to strengthen our process of continental unity and struggle towards our liberation.”

The following year the All-Natives Conference held at D-Q University in Davis, Calif., the first tribal college in the U.S., and the All Peoples Network Conference at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., led to the creation of the Resistance 500 Coalition, which organized the first Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 10, 1992.

And it was no coincidence that the event would be held in Berkeley. The plan for the finale of the Quincentennial celebration was that the ships would sail, as Curl puts it, “under the majestic Golden Gate Bridge into the San Francisco Bay on October 12, 1992 as the national focal point and centerpiece of the grand hoopla.”

But the devil was in the financial details. First, after Texaco backed out of a $5 million dollar sponsorship pledge, the Quincentenary Commission, which was only allocated $1 million dollars by Congress for the project, was in dire straits. Second, as the Washington Post reported in November 1991, the commission’s chairman resigned in the midst of accusations of bribery and mismanagement. Third, a few days after the replicated ships arrived in the Boston Harbor as scheduled, the commission’s co-chair announced that logistics demanded the cancellation of the west coast tour. Fourth, the effective activism of the Resistance 500 Coalition throughout the Bay area undermined Quincentenary support so much so that the west-coast cities also failed to raise adequate funds despite a last-ditch effort by the Bay Area Committee.

It was within this context that Berkeley launched its first commemoration of Indigenous Peoples Day. The legacy of that first conference in Geneva 40 years ago has also flourished into a worldwide movement culminating into the adaptation of the United Nations historic Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, based on the final resolution of that first international gathering of indigenous people of the Americas. And in all the years since, their message to the United States and the world remains the same: We Are Still Here.

Historians explain how the past informs the present

Arica L. Coleman is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia and chair of the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories at the Organization of American Historians.

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