On Monday, Americans celebrated Indigienous Peoples’ Day as well as Columbus Day. This year, President Joe Biden became the first president to proclaim an Indigenous Peoples’ Day observance, although the holiday was first celebrated in 1937. Increasing pressure by activists over the last few years to stop celebrating a colonizer likely made Biden’s choice for him.
Christopher Columbus, as the song goes, sailed across the ocean blue in 1492. When he hit land in what is now called the Bahamas, he called it the New World. While there, he enslaved many native inhabitants of the West Indies. For that alone, Columbus Day should be eradicated. There’s nothing to celebrate about him.
Though it was celebrated by Italian-Americans before 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared October 12 of that year “Columbus Day.” In 1971, Columbus Day was made a federal holiday on the second Monday in October.
As a child, I remember looking forward to Columbus Day because it meant I got a day off from my long hard days as an elementary student. I was too young at the time to understand federal holidays and the idea of observance as a sign of respect for whom, or what, the day was celebrating.
We learned about Columbus for the first time in first grade. I still have my daily journal from that year, where I would meticulously jot down the day’s activities in crayon. I drew a picture of one of the voyaging ships, the Santa-María, because I thought it had the prettiest name. We memorized songs about Columbus on the Friday before, and talked about him for weeks after. Indigenous Peoples’ Day never came up.
This isn’t because the concept would be difficult for children to understand. We learned about Indigenous people once the leaves started to fall and Thanksgiving was around the corner but were only taught about their involvement in the first Thanksgiving as excited guests at the pilgrims’ tables. Native people are only celebrated in America through their connections to white people.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day, according to the activists that have been working with Biden, is meant to replace the celebration of explorers like Columbus who committed violence against Indigenous communities.
I grew up attending school in Unit 5, and up until this year, schools in Bloomington-Normal had the day off to observe Columbus Day. However, this year, classes were held even though Indigenous Peoples’ Day was federally recognized as an observed day. Observed holidays are put in place as a sign of respect and appreciation, and also provide dedicated time to learn about and celebrate the subject of the day.
Although Illinois Wesleyan hasn’t had the day off for Columbus Day in a few years, it strikes me as ignorant for classes to be held this year. The only energy put forward by the University to recognize the holiday was an Instagram post that acknowledged IWU’s location as land once cared for by native nations in Illinois, such as the Kiikaapoi/Kickapoo, Peoria, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ/Sioux and Myaamia/Miami. Students were not impressed with the post, with one student asking the question: “Okay so what’s next?” Other commenters pointed out that IWU was doing nothing to pay tribute to that land.
In order to do the work IWU did not make time for, many resources are available to begin educating yourself on the importance of recognizing the genocidal colonization Columbus Day stands for. It’s so easy to stream Native-American work, read books by Indigenous authors and donate to relief funds, among so many other options.
Necessary internal decolonization cannot truly begin if we refuse to give Indigenous Peoples’ Day the same respect once given to Columbus Day. I urge Illinois Wesleyan, and McLean County schools, to see the harm in their decisions to hold classes and recognize that to put it on the calendar isn’t even the bare minimum. We are inhabiting stolen land and that cannot go without recognition.