Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

We have written about the process of denaming and renaming schools and other institutions, public and private, as well as public spaces, both to erase associations with persons whose reputations have increasingly come into disfavor and to eliminate terms now considered derogatory.

As we approach the fall holiday (October 10, 2022) that has been known as Columbus Day — a federal holiday since 1937 — it is appropriate to take a closer look at the denaming/renaming process as it relates to Native Americans. The name of the holiday itself is the obvious starting point. Last year was the first time that a U.S. president officially proclaimed an Indigenous Peoples’ Day observance. President Biden wrote:

Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities… 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.

However, President Biden also issued a proclamation recognizing the same day as Columbus Day, thus underscoring a tension between those who wish to celebrate Christopher Columbus as a “discoverer” and hero, especially to Italian-Americans, and those who see him as a colonizer and destroyer of the indigenous population.

States are not bound to follow federal holidays, and there is a confusing patchwork of observances. Numerous states and the District of Columbia now recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. (Depending on the specific status in each state, these include Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota (the first state to officially recognize “Native Americans’ Day” in 1990), Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.) More than 130 local governments have chosen not to celebrate Columbus Day or to replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Berkeley, CA was the first city to do so when in 1992, just before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, the local Native American population convinced the City Council to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day.

Still other states, while not officially recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an official holiday, nevertheless have observances honoring Native Americans on that day or on another day.

Beyond the cacophony of the holiday observance, there is increased sensitivity to nomenclature that disrespects Native Americans. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland stated:

Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands. Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression.

She has also taken steps to eliminate the term “squaw” from U.S. geographic sites, with some private entities following suit (for example, the Squaw Valley ski resort near Lake Tahoe, California has changed its name to Palisades Tahoe). Secretary Haaland has also created the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names. This committee will

accelerate the process for reviewing and recommending changes to other derogatory geographic and federal land unit names. The Committee will include representation from Indian Tribes, Tribal and Native Hawaiian organizations, civil rights, anthropology, and history experts, and members of the general public. Since the order, a charter for the Committee has been created and initial members appointed.

The movement to end the use of Native American names, logos and mascots in the world of sports and beyond is examined in a new documentary, Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting.

Native Americans are sometimes referred to as the “invisible minority.” They are starkly underrepresented in the social sciences literature, in U.S. history books and in the arts:

Scholars have attributed this near invisibility to shifting census categories, underrepresentation in samples, and residence in more rural geographic areas. Combined with elements of systematic and structural racism and other forms of oppression, the continued representation of Native American populations as an “asterisk” in scholarship contributes to their ongoing marginalization as a people.

In an effort to combat this marginalization, land acknowledgments, or formal public statements of the names of the native inhabitants of a place, are becoming prevalent in the United States as a respectful way to recognize its original stewards. The National Environmental Education Fund (NEEF), a nonprofit organization which has done extensive work to bring attention and resources to the preservation of public lands — and particularly how to honor the indigenous heritage of public lands — has published a guide to land acknowledgments and related materials on its website.

Nevertheless, land acknowledgments are not without controversy, as some see them as “empty, feel-good gestures” that can actually do harm. For example, the traditional stewardship recognition does not deal with the issue of who owns the land now and what, if any, action should be taken. There are also questions as to who event organizers turn to for guidance – their determinations as to who is or is not an American Indian or Native Alaskan or the obscuring of often complex tribal histories may be seen as undermining indigenous sovereignty. In fact, in 2021, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) took an introspective pause in land acknowledgments and conference blessing ceremonies to consider the issue in depth. See also Graeme Wood’s article in The Atlantic, “Land Acknowledgments’ Are Just Moral Exhibitionism.”

Regardless of where one ends up on any of these complicated issues, the October 10th holiday should be thought-provoking. Lutzker & Lutzker will continue to examine developments relative to denaming and renaming.