“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” is the poem many elementary schoolchildren learn, but how did a man who stole, raped, enslaved, and never even landed on Turtle Island get his own holiday?
According to History.com and the Library of Congress, the first celebration of Columbus Day took place on the 300th anniversary of his first voyage on October 12 1792, when New York’s Columbian Order—also known as the Society of St. Tammany—held an event to commemorate the anniversary of Columbus’s landing. After that, various celebrations around the country started popping up to honor Columbus’s Italian and Catholic heritage. Then, on the 400th anniversary of his landing, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging people to “cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.”
The proclamation went on to call Columbus a “pioneer of progress and enlightenment,” and said, “Let the national flag float over every schoolhouse in the country and the exercises be such as shall impress upon our youth the patriotic duties of American citizenship.”
The Knights of Columbus, an international Roman Catholic fraternal benefit society, began lobbying state legislatures to declare October 12 a holiday. They succeeded in getting Colorado to agree on April 1, 1907 with the help of Italian immigrant Angelo Noce, who arrived in Denver around 1872. Noce founded the first Italian newspaper and advocated for the Italian immigrant community.
New York declared Columbus Day a holiday in 1909, and the first Columbus Day parade was held there on October 12 of that year. According to NPR, by 1912, a total of 14 states were celebrating Columbus Day.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Participants in the Columbus Day Parade ride a float with a large bust of Christopher Columbus in New York, Monday, October 12, 2015. Approximately 35,000 marchers participated in the annual celebration of Italian-American culture.
Then, in 1934, the Knights of Columbus got their wish, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt designated October 12 a national holiday. In 1971, President Richard Nixon designated Columbus Day the second Monday in October.
Opposition to this federal holiday started as early as the 19th century, when anti-immigrant groups rejected its association with Catholicism. As Tara Houska reports for ICTMN, it was federal Indian policy of the 1950s that relocated Natives to urban centers, and Denver was one area to get an influx of Native Americans. As the Native population grew, so did prominent Native organizations like the Native American Rights Fund and the American Indian Science & Engineering Society, which both started in Denver.
And activists have been fighting the war on Columbus Day in Denver since 1989, when the American Indian Movement of Colorado set out to reveal the truth of Columbus’s legacy of suffering.
Some progress has been made since then, though still a state recognized holiday, the Denver City Council unanimously decided to not observe Columbus Day with office closures.
South Dakota was the first state to rename the federal holiday as Native American Day in 1990, and Minneapolis and Seattle were the first major cities to change Columbus Day observances to Indigenous Peoples Day in 2014. In 2015, the state of Alaska recognized the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day, as well as a number of cities including Albuquerque, New Mexico; Lawrence, Kansas; Portland, Oregon; Anadarko, Oklahoma; Olympia, Washington; Alpena, Michigan; and Bexar County, Texas. The State of Hawaii doesn’t recognize Columbus Day as a holiday at all.
There are a number of other cities that hold Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations either instead of Columbus Day or in addition to them.