Should Columbus Day be Indigenous Peoples Day?

Is Christopher Columbus a hero who discovered the New World? A murderous explorer? Or something in between? Should the second Monday in October continue to be a federal holiday in his honor?

More than half a millennium after Columbus arrived in the New World, some Americans have debated how he should be remembered. For schoolchildren, Columbus is usually portrayed as a kind of American saint. Around the country, parades and monuments honor him. Admirers credit him as an explorer and man guided by his Christian faith. A 2005 survey found that most Americans have a positive view of Columbus, including many Native Americans.

Since the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival took place in 1992, the legacy of his four expeditions has been re-examined. Critics and some historians hold him accountable for the exploitation and murder of indigenous people who already were living in the New World and for bringing slavery to the Western Hemisphere. A number of Native Americans are pushing to abolish the federal holiday or replace it with one that honors indigenous people, and a small number of states have already taken up this holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or Native Americans’ Day.


Some parts of the country do not observe Columbus Day. South Dakota, Alabama and Hawaii have all renamed it, as have Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore. A measure in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005 called on Congress or the U.S. president to establish a legal paid public holiday recognizing Native Americans, but did not mention Columbus Day.

Opposition to such changes has come from many Italian-Americans who celebrate the Italian Columbus’ accomplishments as part of their heritage, as well as from some who applaud him as a man whose faith was central to his mission. Will grass-roots efforts and scattered actions lead to a new understanding of Columbus, a de-sanctification of his image and an end to his holiday?

Why it matters

Criticism of Columbus Day echoes debates over sensitivities involved in the portrayal of Native Americans in U.S. history. Are Indian names and mascots disrespectful? Is it insensitive to honor an explorer committed to spreading his Christian faith when Native Americans already had their own spiritual beliefs? Where does America draw the line between re-evaluating history and unfairly revising it?

Questions for reporters

  • How will Columbus Day be marked in your region?
  • Are there local monuments to Columbus?
  • How do schools teach Christopher Columbus’ legacy?
  • What do local Native Americans have to say about Columbus?
  • Are Italian-Americans or others active on the issue?
  • How is Columbus’ commitment to spreading Christianity viewed?


National sources

American Indian advocates for 'Indigenous Peoples Day'

Academic advocates for 'Indigenous Peoples Day'

  • Bernard McGinn

    Bernard McGinn is Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology and of the History of Christianity in the Divinity School and the Committees on Medieval Studies and on General Studies. Read his thoughts about how Columbus was on an apocalyptic mission, from the PBS show Frontline.

  • Paul Martin Lester

    Paul Martin Lester is professor of communications at California State University-Fullerton. See a 1993 essay he published in Visual Anthropology about why Columbus should not be honored.

  • James W. Loewen

    James W. Loewen was a visiting professor of sociology at Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and the author of several books, including The Truth About Columbus (New York: The New Press, 1992).

Supporters of Columbus Day

  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal serves as president of the Faith & Reason Institute and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing. His books include 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History and Reinventing the American People: Unity and Diversity Today.

    He says that the controversy over Columbus Day has calmed and that most people do not believe that the United States is illegitimate country because Native Americans were here when explorers arrived.


  • Joe Baca

    Joe Baca was a U.S. Representative in, D-Calif. He sponsored House Resolution 76 to establish a legal holiday recognizing Native Americans’ contributions.

    Contact: 202-225-6161.
  • “South Dakota celebrates Native American Day”

    Read an article from The Jamestown Sun about South Dakota’s Indigenous Peoples’ Holiday that stands in place of the Columbus Day holiday.

  • “Support for Native American Day scarce in Native America”

    In Oklahoma a bill was introduced in 2005 that would have replaced Columbus Day with Native American Day. The bill did not receive a committee hearing.

Alternative celebrations

Regional sources

In the Northeast

In the South

  • “Native Americans’ Day in United States”

    Read an article about Native Americans’ Day that explains when, where and how that day is celebrated.

  • Sharlotte Neely

    Sharlotte Neely is a professor of anthropology at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights. She has expertise in North American Indians, especially the Cherokee, Shawnee and Navajo. NKU has a Native American Studies program. She wrote Snowbird Cherokees: People of Persistence (University of Georgia Press, 1993) and co-wrote This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native Americans (Mayfield Publishing, 1998).

  • Phillip Martin

    Phillip Martin was chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Martin served as the Tribe’s principle elected official for 32 years, and had a record of service to the Tribal government of 40 years.


  • Jace Weaver

    Jace Weaver is a religion professor at the University of Georgia, Athens, who specializes in American Indian cultures and religious traditions. Weaver directs the university’s Institute of Native American Studies.

In the Midwest

  • John Hickenlooper

    John Hickenlooper was elected Governor of Colorado in 2010 after being active and mayor of Denver in 2003. He recognizes and has acted on the Columbus v. Indigenous Peoples’ Day debate.

    He wrote in a letter published Sept. 28, 2005, by the Rocky Mountain News that organizers of the city’s annual Columbus Day parade have the right to hold the event and that opponents have the right to lawfully protest.

In the West

  • Gregory Cajete

    Gregory Cajete, a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, directs Native American studies at the University of New Mexico.

  • Ward Churchill

    Ward Churchill, who is Creek and Cherokee, was a professor of ethnic studies and coordinator of American Indian studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a leader in the American Indian Movement of Colorado. His numerous books include, as author, Speaking Truth in the Teeth of Power: Lectures on Globalization, Colonialism and Native North America (AK Press, 2006).

    Contact: 303-492-8852.
  • Kathleen S. Fine-Dare

    Kathleen S. Fine-Dare is professor of anthropology and gender/women’s studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., and has expertise on Native North America. She wrote Grave Injustice: The American Indian Repatriation Movement and NAGPRA (University of Nebraska Press, 2002).

  • Joe Shirley Jr.

    Joe Shirley Jr. of Chinle, Ariz., is president of the Navajo Nation, which includes portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Contact George Hardeen.

  • Jonathan Batkin

    Jonathan Batkin directs the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, N.M. He has been published widely on Pueblo Indian pottery and the Native American curio trade, including From the Railroad to Route 66: The Native American Curio Trade in New Mexico (Wheelwright Museum of the Amer, 2008).

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