The U.S. Celebrates First National Indigenous Peoples' Day
In a day for the history books, the United States celebrated its first national Indigenous Peoples' Day today, October 11, 2021.
On Friday, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation honoring the "invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples," a day that recognizes their "inherent sovereignty and commits to honoring the Federal Government's trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations."
Biden also made a second proclamation on Columbus Day praising the roles of Italian Americans in society —but emphasized the harm Italian explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus and other of his time brought forth after their arrival in the New World.
"Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities," he wrote. "It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past—that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them."
Since 1892, the U.S. has celebrated Columbus Day, honoring Italian heritage after a mass lynching of 11 Italian Americans. Initially, the holiday took place on October 12th—the day Columbus and his crew "discovered" America —but was changed by Congress to the second Monday of October in 1971.
Long before colonization of the Americas began, millions of indigenous people already lived in what we know today as North, South and Central America, and the Caribbean. In the United States alone, Alaska Natives, American Indians, and Native Hawaiians have safeguarded valuable traditions and knowledge throughout generations despite violence inflicted upon them.
Though the commemoration of Columbus Day honored Italian-Americans, it felt like a slap in the face to Native Americans and their ancestors who were massacred and enslaved, forced to assimilate and raped, brutalized and displaced from their lands. According to National Geographic, the population of Indigenous people shrank by about half after European contact.
During the 1960s and 1970s, push back by the Pan-Indian and Red Power movements began protesting the Columbus Day holiday. Those protests expanded and in 1990 —the anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre— Native American publisher Tim Giago pushed the governor of South Dakota to declare a year of reconciliation by changing Columbus Day to Native American Day.
The governor agreed, and since then various states, including Alaska, Maine, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont and Wisconsin, joined the list. Now, the entire nation has followed suit as well.
"Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples' resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society," Biden said in the proclamation. "We also recommit to supporting a new, brighter future of promise and equity for Tribal Nations — a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and respect for the human rights of Indigenous people in the Americas and around the world."