For many Pace students, Oct. 11 is only viewed as a much-needed break, but across the country, a forced national reckoning over America’s racial legacy is taking place. Calendars, cabinets and councils have disagreed over whether to acknowledge this day as Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day; however, this year marks the first time a U.S. President recognizes it as the latter.
In an official statement on Oct. 8, the White House declared, “We must never forget the centuries-long campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation and terror wrought upon Native communities and Tribal Nations throughout our country.” This message rings true for many who argue that the federal holiday of Columbus Day idealizes a “whitewashed” version of American history, glorifying colonizers while ignoring Native American struggles.
However, this narrative is new to many, as the explorer’s reputation has only darkened in recent years. Even Pace students can remember times in Lower School where they dressed up as Native Americans, something that would be wildly inappropriate today, and recited the famous nursery rhyme: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” So what exactly did that tune leave out? A complicated, convoluted history involving the near extinction of an entire race of people.
This tone-deaf celebration indirectly honors an event that resulted in colonization, the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and involved the death of millions through murder and disease. These difficult conversations begin in the classroom, with Upper School History Teacher Christine Carter. “As historians, you are trained to continue to reevaluate new perspectives, new historiography and new sources,” she said. “These facts are not a recent development, but more people in the general public are focusing on the story of the Indigenous people and reevaluating the history they grew up with.”
Surprisingly, controversy over Columbus Day has been widespread, even before concerns over Indigenous people. President Franklin Roosevelt officially named it a federal holiday in 1934, after intense pressure and lobbying from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization. This decision was immediately met with backlash, in a time of prejudice and mistreatment for Italians-Americans and Catholics, who had been celebrating that day since 1792. Many agree that the matter at hand is more pressing, and there are far better ways to acknowledge Italian heritage rather than celebrate a notorious colonizer. However, it only serves as proof of how quickly times change. A day once instilled to help fight bigotry becomes the very symbol of it.
The Biden administration’s announcement joins a movement on which states such as Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, as well as several major cities, have already embarked, choosing to acknowledge some version of Indigenous Peoples Day. Although it may seem like a long-overdue, merely symbolic movement, this simple name change can lead to real social progress for Indigenous communities, through visibility for Native people. The recognition of this day is just the beginning in the process of correcting injustices, but many will agree that it’s a step in the positive direction and necessary in upholding the rights and dignity of Indigenous people across the country.