Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day

October 9, 2023

“In Fourteen Hundred Ninety Two,
Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue…”

For a long time, that was the introduction to both Christopher Columbus and the founding of this nation. Many an elementary-aged child has happily learned the entire jaunty little poem that regaled the work of a great discoverer without whom we’d have no “America the Great.”

An explorer by trade, Columbus left Spain in 1492, with three ships (Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria) and plans to establish new routes to Asia, India and the “Spice Islands.” On Oct. 12 of that year, he hit the Bahamas and then went on to Cuba, believing he had landed in China. About two months later, he landed his ships in Hispaniola (in the West Indies) but thought he’d come to Japan. It was a successful voyage, the explorer reported when he returned to Italy early the next year. He’d established a colony in Hispaniola and brought back gold, spices and, more ominously, West Indian captives.

A day hailing Christopher Columbus’s work and his Italian heritage was first celebrated sometime in the 1790s. About a century later, President Benjamin Harrison became the first to give the date some notoriety, issuing a proclamation that took note of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ explorations. Harris wrote in the proclamation that people should cease working if possible, and engage in acts of acknowledgement of Columbus and all the wondrous achievements that had been made during 400 years of American life. Following long and intense lobbying by a Catholic fraternal order known as the Knights of Columbus, President Theodore Roosevelt established Columbus Day as a federal holiday. In 2023, it is observed on Oct. 9.

Opposition to the celebration of Columbus was initially noted in the 1800s, when Americans protesting immigration of Catholics also protested anything to do with Columbus who was, in fact, Catholic. In the 1900s, historians, Native Americans, civil rights activists and others have voiced strong opposition to a day celebrating the explorer or his 1492 voyage. The K-12 story told about Columbus’ work was wildly inaccurate, they charged. The Columbus story also leaves out the most heinous acts made during the voyage. Opposers insist the voyage led to the beginning of the slave trade, was marred by mass murder and mutilation of Black and Brown bodies, and included the establishment of a religious-based stranglehold that was the colonization of the Americas.

In 1992, Berkley, California, established a new holiday on top of the day we’ve known as Columbus Day and called it Indigenous Peoples Day. The point was to acknowledge what has been left out of the history books and honor the people who occupied the lands prior to colonization. They also want to bring light to the undeniable fact that the land on which the United States has been built was not discovered by Christopher Columbus at all. Indigenous Peoples Day also seeks to contradict the negative and racist portrayal of those people in U.S. media, specifically television. Today, although President Biden has recognized the holiday, Indigenous Peoples’ day is not a federal holiday.

Columbus Day was originally to occur annually on Oct. 12, but in 1971 was moved to the second Monday in October. According to, the holiday known as Columbus Day is fading as more cities and states accept the argument that Columbus is an inappropriate figure to celebrate: Only 16 states observe the second Monday of October as a holiday exclusively called Columbus Day. Some states, like California and Delaware, have dropped the holiday altogether. Maine, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington, D.C. have renamed the second Monday of October Indigenous People’s Day. North Dakota and Nebraska designate the day as both Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day. Iowa does not officially celebrate either day.

The meaning and focus of the day has begun to change too, now focusing heavily on the culture of Italian-American, Native-American people.