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Columbus Day 2020: A Holiday in Search of a Name

October 12, 2020


Today is officially Columbus Day. According to the Federalpay.org website, “Columbus Day is one of ten federal holidays recognized nationwide by the United States Government. All non-essential federal government offices are closed on Columbus Day, and all federal employees are paid even if they receive the day off. Many private-sector employees will also receive paid time off or special holiday pay on Columbus Day. Columbus Day commemorates the arrival of the Christopher Columbus in the Americas. It is celebrated every second Monday of October, and has been a federal holiday since 1937.”[1] While that all sounds fairly straight forward, a controversy rages every year around the holiday. History.com notes, “For many, the holiday is a way of both honoring Columbus’ achievements and celebrating Italian-American heritage. But throughout its history, Columbus Day and the man who inspired it have generated controversy, and many alternatives to the holiday have proposed since the 1970s including Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”[2]


The roots of the controversy are religious, xenophobic, and historical. History.com explains, “Controversy over Columbus Day dates back to the 19th century, when anti-immigrant groups in the United States rejected the holiday because of its association with Catholicism.” The Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal organization, had vigorously lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the federal holiday. History.com continues, “In recent decades, Native Americans and other groups have protested the celebration of an event that resulted in the colonization of the Americas, the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade and the deaths of millions from murder and disease. European settlers brought a host of infectious diseases, including smallpox and influenza that decimated indigenous populations. Warfare between Native Americans and European colonists claimed many lives as well.”


The holiday in search of a name


The religious and xenophobic protests about Columbus Day should be ignored; however, the historical consequences of Columbus’ discoveries can’t be ignored. As a result, many groups have been looking for a way to make the holiday more inclusive. Meera Dolasia reports, “[The holiday] has long drawn criticism due to the European settlers’ brutal treatment of the Native American people. It has also been argued that America had already been ‘discovered’ by the indigenous people when Columbus arrived. Hence, Columbus Day, which has been unofficially celebrated since 1792 and a national holiday since 1937, has always been somewhat controversial. Some states like Oregon, Iowa, and Nebraska have never observed it. … A 2015 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that Columbus Day was the most inconsistently-observed US holiday.”[3] To quell the controversy some groups have opted to the change the holiday’s name. For example, the District of Columbia (ironically named after Columbus) changed the name of the Federal Holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.[4] The District is not alone in looking for an alternative name.


Dolasia reports, “South Dakota renamed it ‘Native American Day’ in 1990, while Hawaii has called the holiday ‘Discoverers’ Day’ — in honor of the state’s Polynesian founders — since 1988. As public awareness has increased, numerous schools and universities across the country have also stopped marking the event. … A 1977 delegation of Native nations at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed renaming Columbus Day to ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day.’ They believed renaming the holiday would help honor the victims of American colonization. Though the resolution passed by an overwhelming majority, it took 15 years for the first city — Berkeley, CA — to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 1992. The coastal city of Santa Cruz, CA, followed shortly after, in 1994. The movement lost steam again until 2014, when Minneapolis, MN, Grand Rapids, MN, and Seattle, WA, decided to adopt the change. Since then, over 70 cities and states, as well as numerous universities nationwide, have switched to the new name. In 2019, three more states — New Mexico, Vermont, and Maine — voted in the name change as well.”


The latest state to join the name game is Colorado. Alisha Ebrahimji (@AlishaEbrahimji) reports, “Colorado passed legislation Tuesday to replace Columbus Day with Cabrini Day because bill sponsors say it doesn’t represent their community members. The [second] Monday of October will now honor Frances Xavier Cabrini, who according to the bill, is the woman responsible for creating 67 schools, hospitals, and orphanages in the United States and South and Central America throughout her lifetime.”[5]


Honoring heritage


Honoring indigenous people and recognizing the indignities they suffered (and continue to suffer) is certainly long overdue; however, changing the holiday’s name to Indigenous Peoples’ Day alters some of the reasons the holiday was established in the first place (i.e., to honor exploration and immigration). With or without Columbus, the America’s would have been “discovered” and global population flows would have occurred. A middle ground name, like Heritage Day, would be more in line with honoring exploration and immigration, while at the same time recognizing the unique and important place of indigenous peoples in the history of the so-called New World. America is known for being a melting pot of cultures and the country’s heritage is richer as a result. Since Columbus Day is the most inconsistently observed federal holiday, you may not have the day off. If you are one of those whose does get to celebrate the day, the staff at Enterra Solutions® hopes you honor your heritage without forgetting the lessons of history. It’s time we fully embrace the principle espoused in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”


[1] Staff, “Columbus Day 2020 – Federal Holidays,” Federalpay.org, 2020.
[2] Staff, “Columbus Day 2020,” History.com, 30 January 2020.
[3] Meera Dolasia, “New Mexico, Vermont, And Maine Replace Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” DOGO News, 8 October 2019.
[4] Aris Folley, “DC Council votes to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” The Hill, 9 October 2019.
[5] Alisha Ebrahimji, “Colorado will replace Columbus Day with Cabrini Day, the first paid state holiday recognizing a woman in the US,” CNN, 11 March 2020.

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