Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day: Change the Name – Change Lives

Quinault Tribe President Dawn Sharp testifies before Seattle City Council on Monday, October 6, 2014.

Quinault Tribe President Dawn Sharp testifies before Seattle City Council on Monday, October 6, 2014.


There is a fallacy that exists today that it is only recently that there has been a push to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In fact, this movement started in 1977 with the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, sponsored by the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

Thirteen years later, in 1990, the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance in Quito, Ecuador, brought together peoples from indigenous groups from North, Central, and South America who set out to mark the 500th anniversary in 1992 of the arrival of Christopher Columbus not as a mark of genocide and loss but as a day to promote continental unity and liberation.

In the past 37 years, the movement to recognize Indigenous Peoples has grown and now Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a reality in several communities around the country. As a consequence of the 1990 conference, the city council of Berkeley, California declared October 12, 1992 as a “Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People”, and 1992 the “Year of Indigenous People.”  Since 1992, two other cities in California, Sebastapol and Santa Cruz, celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

While Columbus Day is now a federal holiday, four states (Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota) do not celebrate this day with South Dakota having a Native American Day. A strong factor in seeking a change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day is the role that Columbus’ landing in 1492 contributed to the mass genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas.

In 2014, the momentum for Indigenous Peoples’ Day has accelerated. In April 2014, the city council of Minneapolis, Minnesota passed a resolution changing the name from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The reasoning behind this is the same as noted above. However, not everyone in Minnesota or Seattle where the most recent city council resolution was passed changing the name is happy about such decisions.

Many Americans of Italian descent view Columbus Day as a celebration of Italian heritage and are against the name change. However, the intent of the Minneapolis city council was to “set the record straight” and to honor Native Americans.

In September 2014, a plan to change the name from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day was put forth in front of the Seattle City Council.

On Monday, it was passed unanimously. It was reported that cheers and the sounds of drums greeted the passing of the resolution. Tribal chair people and council members that spoke up in support of the resolution included Fawn Sharp of the Quinault Tribe and David Bean of the Puyallup Tribal Council.

The focus of the comments from Ms. Sharp and Mr. Bean was that it was time to recognize the “richness of the indigenous people in the Seattle area” with a very poignant statement by Ms. Sharp that “no one discovered Seattle.

The city council of Bellingham, Washington, home of Western State University, is scheduled to consider a similar resolution on October 13, 2014. Bellingham is central to many of the tribes in the northwestern part of Washington State including the Nooksack Tribe, the Lummi Tribe, the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, and the Tulalip Tribe, which is located between Seattle and Bellingham. The hope for many of the Native people and others who are supporting changing the name from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day is that such a change will promote understanding, acknowledgement, and the recognition of the myriad of cultural and other contributions Native tribes have made.

The Duwamish Tribe, a primary tribe whose historical lands include Seattle and is the tribe of Chief Seattle, is seeking to regain their federal recognition, which was granted under the Clinton Administration only to be stripped away in the early days of the first Bush Administration. In an ironic twist to what should be a victory for Indigenous people, the Tulalip Tribe has filed a protest against such recognition.

It would be a fitting outcome if the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day would also see an end to tribe versus tribe lawsuits and true step forward to pantribal unity and liberation.

Robin A. Ladue, PhD, is a retired clinical psychologist. She is the author of “Totems of September.”  She is an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Tribe of Washington.


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