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More US cities ask: Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day?

Columbus Day backlash: A controversial movement to celebrate Native American history, rather than Columbus' landing, has taken hold in eight more cities after years of advocacy. 

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Travis Mazawaficuna of the Dakota Nation attends the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples outside the United Nations in Manhattan, New York, in this August file photo. This weekend, Native Americans are gathering in New York again to protest the annual Columbus Day parade, which several cities have now renamed to honor Native American tribes.

Adrees Latif/ Reuters

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What’s in a name? A lot, say eight cities changing “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day” in the past two months.

For decades, Native Americans have urged states that celebrate the federal holiday to reconsider honoring a man many historians accuse of opening the Americas to enslavement, genocide, and cultural destruction – and “finding” the wrong continent, to boot. (The Italian explorer was convinced he’d reached Asia.) 

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South Dakota and Berkeley, Calif., were among the first to pay attention, choosing to use the second Monday in October to honor the New World’s first inhabitants instead of its 15th century newcomers. Berkeley’s decision went into effect in 1992, marking the 500th anniversary of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria’s fabled ocean voyage. 

But further protests seemed to fall on deaf ears, until a sudden wave of Columbus cancellations in the past two years: 10 more cities have joined the list, from Albuquerque to Seattle to St. Paul. This new wave may represent a broader shift in how Americans view Native American rights, or at least the growing local political influence of indigenous groups. 

According to the Albequerque City Council’s Proclamation, Indigenous Peoples Day is meant to honor the “indigenous nations [who] have lived upon this land since time immemorial” and show respect for “American Indian thought, culture, and technology.” 

Although debates rage on about exactly how much damage Europeans inflicted on Native populations immediately after their arrival, some estimate that up to 90 percent of the continent’s first inhabitants died from warfare, enslavement, or diseases, violence which carried into the American government’s discriminatory policies through the 19th and early 20th century, and are still felt today, when 25 percent live in poverty, versus the US average of 15 percent.

Some groups say that, although they’re not opposed to recognizing Native nations’ trauma, Columbus himself can’t be sacrificed. Columbus Day, in fact, was founded in order to honor another once discriminated-against group: Italian-Americans, who flock to New York City’s annual 35,000 marcher-strong parade each October. 

Opposing Seattle’s decision to hold Indigenous Peoples Day, Italian-American activist Ralph Fascitelli told reporters in 2014 that, although the holiday’s intentions were valuable, the change was “going too far in terms of political correctness.”

“We say today, ‘Basta!’ ...We say, ‘No more discrimination,” he added, according to the Seattle Times

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Earlier this week, the Brown University Daily Herald website briefly published an op-ed protesting the school’s plan to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day by a student who suggested that Americans focus on the “Columbian Exchange,” the introduction of new products and species from Old World to New and vice versa, rather than Columbus the man.

“All Native Americans should celebrate Columbus Day, even if they have reservations about honoring Christopher Columbus himself,” student M. Dzhali Maier opined, causing a ruckus on campus. The paper clarified that Maier’s column was published by accident.

Discrimination against Native Americans became a mainstream media headline twice earlier this year: Pope Francis’ controversial canonization of Junipero Serra, a priest in California’s early mission system, and the ongoing saga of the Washington Redskins football team, whose trademark was cancelled by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Native American issues may be getting more airtime, but the effects are still unclear: for example, a petition to the White House to officially rename Columbus Day "Indigenous Peoples' Day" attracted just under 9,000 votes, not enough to meet the signature requirement. 

But a new generation of Native politicians may stand ready to advocate for their communities on a wider scale: a record number are getting involved in state and local government, where their sights are set far beyond Columbus Day.

As Dylan Sevett wrote for US Uncut, "This name change is a fantastic trend that needs to grow fast, but it needs to be followed up by concrete action and legislation" to improve Native lives today.