columbus day
A statue of Christopher Columbus at a downtown Los Angeles park is surrounded by a chain-link fence on October 9, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. The city council voted in August to replace Columbus Day, today, with Indigenous People's Day, honouring Native Americans on the second Monday of October. / AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
By Rebecca Gibian / October 8, 2018 5:00 am

Throughout its history, Columbus Day, a holiday celebrating the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492, has generated controversy. Critics say that Columbus doesn’t deserve acclaim, since his voyages brought disease and wars to the this continent that eventually brutalized Native Americans. Others want to honor his courageous exploration across the Atlantic Ocean.

Columbus Day first began to be celebrated in some U.S. cities and states as early as the 18th century, but it was named an official federal holiday in 1937. Most banks and courthouses are closed, and though some stores will mark the occasion with promotions like “Columbus Day Savings,” many other businesses don’t bother to call out the day.

So, we decided to break down the holiday—and the controversy.

The Man

Christopher Columbus set sail from the port of Palos de la Frontera, Spain, in August 1492 with backing from the Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. His goal: to chart a lucrative western sea route to China, India, and the rumored spice islands of Asia. But instead, on October 12, he landed in the Bahamas—on the island the indigenous people called Guanahani (which he renamed San Salvador Island.). This feat made him the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings set up colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland during the 10th century. Columbus also spotted Cuba, which he thought was China, and then in December, he and his crew arrived Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean, and established Spain’s first colony in the Americas. When he returned to Europe he brought spices, gold and “Indian” captives—it is reported that he kidnapped six West Indies natives the first day he made landfall and forced them to be his servants.

Over the next eight years, Columbus made three more Transatlantic expeditions. On his third voyage in 1498, he realized that he had not reached Asia, but instead had accidentally found a continent whose existence had been erased from the collective memory of most of Europe.

The Holiday

New York’s Columbian Order, a political organization that later became renowned for graft and corruption under the moniker Tammany Hall, held an event in 1792 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the day Columbus landed in America. Then in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation telling Americans to mark the 400th anniversary with “patriotic activities.” But it wasn’t until 1937 that it became a national holiday under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the holiday was seen as a day to celebrate for Italian-Americans and Catholics. Churches and organizations like the Knights of Columbus would use the day to condemn discrimination against Catholics.

The Controversy

Historians point out that, despite his altruistic portrayal in many books, Columbus actually enslaved many indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and sent thousands of them back to Spain to be sold. Within 60 years of Columbus’ landing, only a few hundred Taino natives were left, a massive drop from the community of 250,000 that existed upon his first arrival. As a result, Columbus’s reputation as an intrepid explorer has been re-appraised and he is now seen as more of a colonizer who led to the decimation of American indigenous populations. Others argue that the holiday does not even celebrate the discovery of America, but instead is glorifying the mass genocide and subjugation of indigenous peoples.

In the 1990s, criticism about the explorer’s legacy became more visible in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, and Berkeley, California. In 1992,  the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing, Berkeley became the first city in the U.S. to replace the Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Likewise, Minnesota, Vermont, and Alaska no longer celebrate Columbus Day as a state holiday and instead recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In South Dakota, the state government celebrates Native American Day on the same day as the federal Columbus Day holiday.

Here are the other cities that choose to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day (part of this list was collected by Time):

  • City of Los Angeles
  • Los Angeles County
  • Berkeley, Calif.
  • Santa Cruz, Calif.
  • San Fernando, Calif.
  • Burbank, Calif.
  • Long Beach, Calif.
  • San Luis Obispo, Calif.
  • Watsonville, Calif.
  • Seattle
  • Olympia, Wash.
  • Spokane, Wash.
  • Bainbridge Island, Wash.
  • Minneapolis
  • Grand Rapids, Minn.
  • St. Paul, Minn.
  • Missoula, Montana
  • Denver
  • Durango, Colo.
  • Boulder, Colo.
  • Phoenix
  • Ann Arbor, Mich
  • Detroit, Mich.
  • Traverse City, Mich.
  • Alpena, Mich.
  • East Lansing, Mich.
  • Ypsilanti, Mich.
  • Albuquerque, N.M.
  • Santa Fe, N.M.
  • Fargo, North Dakota
  • Portland
  • Eugene, Ore.
  • Ashland, Ore.
  • Newstead, New York
  • Village of Lewiston, New York (celebrates both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day)
  • Ithaca, New York
  • Anadarko, Okla.
  • Norman, Okla.
  • Tulsa, Okla. (celebrates Native American Day)
  • Tahlequah, Okla.
  • Carrboro, N.C.
  • Asheville, N.C.
  • Belfast, Maine
  • Bangor, Maine
  • Orono, Maine
  • Brunswick, Maine (celebrates both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day)
  • Portland, Maine
  • Bexar County, Texas
  • Cambridge, Mass.
  • Amherst, Mass.
  • Northampton, Mass.
  • Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
  • Charlottesville, Va.
  • Lawrence, Ks.
  • Davenport, Iowa
  • Iowa City, Iowa
  • Durham, N.H.
  • Moscow, Idaho
  • Oberlin, Ohio
  • Salt Lake City
  • Austin, Texas
  • Nashville
  • Madison, Wis.

And these four cities just changed their holiday recognition policies in 2018.