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Fast Facts About Columbus and Indigenous Peoples Day


Monday marked Columbus Day and/or Indigenous Peoples Day. Both holidays are recognized among different states and while there isn’t a consensus on which should be celebrated each year, both holidays have a lot to teach us through their history. 

In 2020 Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus proclaimed Monday, October 12th as Indigenous Peoples Day, the first time it was officially recognized in the city. This year President Joe Biden issued a proclamation commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, becoming the first US president to do so.


Keep reading to learn more about how Columbus Day came to be, and how Columbus Day has become Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

History of Christopher Columbus

  • Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy, and dreamed of finding riches and fame through new discoveries 
  • In 1477 Columbus was hired as a merchant mariner for King John II in Portugal
  • At the time, Portugal was a leading trader with Africa and in the 1480s trade also began with Asia by way of sailing around the African continent 
  • A growing theory of the time believed the world was smaller than previously thought, leading Columbus to think he could reach Asia by sailing west
  • While he dreamed of sailing out to find fame and riches, Columbus didn’t find support until King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain agreed to fund his voyage
  • The King and Queen also wanted the same fame and money, along with the opportunity to spread Catholicism
  • They reached an agreement and Columbus was promised 10% of whatever he found abroad, a noble title, and the rights to govern any land he found
  • Three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria were lent to Columbus and he set out with a crew on August 3, 1942
  • In two months, Columbus’ crew reached an island in the Bahamas, where scholars think San Salvador is today
  • Columbus began calling the people he encountered Indians because Europeans called Asia India at the time
  • Columbus brought new goods back to Spain, where the King and Queen were so pleased they sent him back again in 1493 and once again in 1498
  • Columbus also returned to Europe with slaves from the islands
  • His voyages brought him to the Caribbean islands, South America and Central America
  • It was only on his third trip when Columbus realized he didn’t reach Asia, but rather found a whole new continent unknown to Europeans at the time
  • During those two trips, Columbus and his crew pillaged and seized lands from it’s rightful inhabitants, kidnapped more than 1,000 to be sold into slavery in Spain, sold underaged girls into sex slavery, forced residents to search for gold, and mutilated or killed those who didn’t obey inhumane orders or find enough gold
  • Conditions were so bad in Hispaniola, where Columbus’s left his two brothers in charge, that crew members complained to the King and Queen who sent over a royal investigator
  • The investigator found Columbus and his brothers guilty of numerous heinous crimes, and Columbus returned to Spain in chains in 1500
  • Columbus was stripped of his governor role and title, but was soon pardoned of his most serious charges
  • Columbus convinced the King and Queen to fund one last Ctrip, and in 1502 Columbus made his last voyage, this time reaching Panama
  • He soon returned back to Spain empty-handed after two of his ships were damaged 
  • At the age of 55, Columbus died in 1506

History of Columbus Day

  • The first celebration in the US was held in New York City on October 12, 1866
  • Catholic and Italian communities across the US began hosting parades and religious ceremonies in his honor
  • Many Italians today celebrate Columbus Day as a part of their heritage, due to Columbus’s Italian ethnicity 
  • President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day (but only as a one-time national celebration) with a proclamation to celebrate the 400 year anniversary of the 1892 voyage 
  • This followed a lynching in New Orleans where a mob murdered 11 Italian immigrants
  • President Harrison saw the celebration as a peace offering to enraged Italian Americans and a way to help strengthen diplomatic relationships with Italy
  • During the celebration in 1892, teachers, preachers, poets, and politicians created rituals to spread the ideas of patriotism and loyalty to the nation
  • In 1937, lobbying efforts by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal organization was so strong that President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday
  • Three years later, Congress made October 12 a national holiday 
  • President Nixon signed a proclamation in 1972 changing the date to the second Monday in October 
  • However, most states don’t celebrate Columbus Day as an official state holiday, and only some of those that do close their state services for observation

What is Indigenous Peoples Day?

  • Indigenous Peoples Day honors and celebrates Native Americans as the first people to live in the U.S. 
  • The holiday is a direct counter-celebration to Columbus Day, which some view as a celebration of a colonizer, not a discoverer
  • The stated controversy surrounding Columbus Day is that there’s misplaced credit towards Columbus for discovering the “new world” as indigenous populations existed in the lands Columbus encountered long before he ever visited 
  • It is additionally criticized that Columbus’ voyages led to the exchange of various deadly diseases and the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade
  • The idea for replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day first originated during the 1977 Geneva United Nations International Conference. Indigenous Peoples Day was reaffirmed in Geneva in 1981. 
  • South Dakota was the first state to rename Columbus Day as Native Americans’ Day in 1990
  • In 1992 Berkeley, California was the first city to institute Indigenous Peoples Day on the 500th anniversary of the 1492 voyage
  • Santa Cruz, California followed suit two years later and it wasn’t until 2014 that more cities and states also began adopting the holiday
  • Today more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia recognize Indigenous Peoples Day, including Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin

Indigenous Peoples Day 2021

Last week, President Joe Biden became the first to issue a presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This means both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day will be observed together, and it shows a growing trend of recognizing Native American history on the holiday. 

“On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our Nation celebrates the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations,” Biden wrote. 

The City of Auburn also recognized Indigenous Peoples Day this year. The below message was posted on the official Mayor Nancy Backus Facebook page:


“Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day! We share this land with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, a federally recognized tribe whose membership is composed of descendants of the Duwamish and Upper Puyallup people who inhabited Central Puget Sound for thousands of years before non-Indian settlement, and whose leaders signed the Treaties of Point Elliott and Medicine Creek. The City of Auburn recognizes that Indigenous people and Native American tribes have made and continue to make invaluable contributions to the diversity, arts, knowledge, labor, technology, science, philosophy, and economy of the state of Washington, and their historical and cultural contributions, particularly those of the Muckleshoot Tribe, have substantially shaped the character of our city.”

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