What Is Indigenous Peoples Day? A Day of Celebration, Protest and Reclaiming History
From Alcatraz Island to a park in New York City, Native American people will celebrate their centuries-long history of resilience on Monday with ceremonies, dances and speeches.
The events across the U.S. come two years after President Joe Biden officially commemorated Indigenous Peoples Day. An increasing number of states and cities have also recognized it — pivoting from a day long rooted in the celebration of explorer Christopher Columbus to one focused on the people whose lives and culture were forever changed by colonialism.
“This day is about reclaiming histories,” said Kyle Mays, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s acknowledging the history of dispossession and violence against Indigenous people.”
Here is a look at why it’s called Indigenous Peoples Day, the history behind it and how people celebrate.
WHY IS IT CALLED INDIGENOUS PEOPLES DAY?
Indigenous Peoples Day has been recognized for decades in different forms and under a variety of names to celebrate Native Americans’ history and culture and to recognize the challenges they continue to face.
In 2021, Biden issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples Day. He said in a statement that the day is meant to “honor America’s first inhabitants and the Tribal Nations that continue to thrive today.”
It is typically observed on the second Monday in October, the same day as Columbus Day, a federal holiday established decades ago to recognize Columbus’ sighting in 1492 of what came to be known as the Americas.
“Columbus was a lost explorer who stumbled into this part of the world and brought famine, colonization, the deaths of millions of Indigenous peoples,” said Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of the NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led advocacy group. “For this country to celebrate that history is absolutely disrespectful.”
IS INDIGENOUS PEOPLES DAY A FEDERAL HOLIDAY?
Although it is not a federal holiday, 17 states — including Washington, South Dakota and Maine — as well as Washington, D.C., have holidays honoring Native Americans, some of which are on the second Monday in October, according to the Pew Research Center. Indigenous Peoples Day is typically paired with Columbus Day or replaces the federal holiday altogether. Dozens of cities and school systems observe Indigenous Peoples Day as well.
Earlier this year, Anchorage and Phoenix became two of the latest municipalities to officially designate Indigenous Peoples Day a holiday. And on Monday, several U.S. lawmakers announced they had reintroduced legislation meant to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day as a federal holiday.
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES DAY?
Its significance for Native Americans has more to do with the fact that it’s the day the U.S. has celebrated Columbus, explained Cliff Matias, cultural director for the New York-based Redhawk Indigenous Arts Council.
“We celebrate our survival of Columbus and all that he brought,” he said.
Matias, whose Indigenous Nations are Taino and Kichwa, said a more suitable day to honor Native people would be the “summer solstice, which is a powerful day for Indigenous people all over the world. It might be some sort of day that we recognize generally correlating with our connection to the planet.”
Still, Tilsen said celebrating on this day is powerful.
“When we celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day, it shows a victory for Indigenous people,” he said. “It represents how we won’t be erased, how we still stand in our power, no matter what they did to try to kill us off and steal our land.”
HOW DO PEOPLE CELEBRATE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES DAY?
Indigenous Peoples Day is meant to recognize the painful history Indigenous people have faced and to celebrate their communities, said Tilsen, who is Oglala Lakota. But it is also “a day of protest and resistance,” he said.
The day is often marked by protests against memorials to Columbus, for environmental justice, for the return of Indigenous lands and in honor of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Tilsen said he often participates in protests a day before celebrating with Native food, performances, art, music and traditional ceremonies.
Recognition of the day itself follows organizing by Indigenous peoples since the 1970s, said Mays, who is Black and Saginaw Anishinaabe. Activists say the effort to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day has been resisted by people who view Columbus as a representative of Italian-American history.
Tilsen said the issue “is not an either-or.”
“Italian-Americans have made so many contributions to America, and that should be celebrated,” he said. “But not like this. There is so much more in Italian-American history that should be celebrated instead.”
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE EVENTS TAKING PLACE THIS YEAR?
As many as 3,000 people are expected to travel to Alcatraz Island early Monday morning to mark its occupation by Native Americans for 19 months, beginning in 1969, in what is often described as the “original land back movement,” said Morning Star Gali, California tribal liaison for the International Indian Treaty Council, which organized the event.
“It really is a celebration of our resilience and our resistance and it’s an effort of reclaiming the visibility of Native peoples, especially for California,” said Gali, a member of the Ajumawi band of the Pit River Tribe.
The event has taken place for more than 45 years and will include a sunrise prayer, traditional dance groups and Indigenous speakers from all over the world.
In New York City, Native people, including tribal chiefs, will gather throughout the long weekend at Randall’s Island Park. The ninth annual gathering, a collaboration of 14 Indigenous organizations and area tribes in the New York City metropolitan region, will include prayers and the honoring of the original inhabitants of the city, explained Matias, founder of the event.
There will also be events across Phoenix, including one organized by the Heard Museum called “Growing for the Future,” which will celebrate Indigenous culture with music, film screenings and fry bread. And in Michigan, an Indigenous Peoples Day event at Mid Michigan College is expected to feature leaders from the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and the state’s lieutenant governor, and is meant to facilitate collaboration between Native people and the broader community.
For people wanting to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, Tilsen said they should look out for community events and learn more about the Indigenous communities in their areas.
Associated Press writer Anita Snow in Phoenix contributed to this report.