Seattle Rejects Holiday Honoring Columbus, Dubs It Indigenous Peoples' Day Instead

Activists are excited to see the end of Columbus Day, but some Italian Americans in the area aren't so thrilled.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 7, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Every year before Columbus Day, the fight over Christopher Columbus’ legacy heats up across America. Fans of the explorer believe he was a Neil Armstrong–like hero who took a risk and ushered in the creation of the modern world. Meanwhile, folks who look at the historical record say Columbus catalyzed an era of genocide against Native Americans who had been living in North America long before 1492. Considering this legacy of murder and exploitation, they argue, we shouldn’t be celebrating him at all.

Well, the Seattle City Council has chosen a clear side in the battle. In a unanimous vote on Monday, the council passed a resolution to stop recognizing the Monday closest to Oct. 12—the day the Italian explorer arrived in the Caribbean—as Columbus Day. Instead, starting this year on Oct. 13, the day will officially be known in Seattle as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in recognition of the history and achievements of Native Americans.

In April, Minneapolis passed a similar resolution to adopt Indigenous Peoples' Day. The move makes Seattle the largest U.S. city to adopt the holiday, and local Native American activists are thrilled.

“Nobody discovered Seattle, Washington,” said Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp, according to Reuters. “This action will allow us to bring into future and present a day honoring our rich history.”

The resolution to ditch Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day was cosponsored by Councilmember Kshama Sawant. She explained at the council meeting that the resolution wasn’t just about a name change. “It’s about teaching our children and ourselves to take a stand against racism and discrimination,” said Sawant.

“Columbus indicts himself in his journal as one of the most prolific slave traders in human history, buying and selling more than 5,000 indigenous people, and helping establish a brutal system of forced labor,” Sawant added. “Just decades after Columbus’ arrival, the indigenous population had been reduced by as much as 90 percent. This city should not honor a man who played a pivotal role in the worst genocide the world has ever known.”

However, some Italian Americans in the area are less than pleased about the switch.

"Italians are intensely offended," Seattle resident Lisa Marchese told the City Council. "For decades, Italian Americans celebrated not the man but the symbol of Columbus Day. That symbol means we honor the legacy of our ancestors who immigrated to Seattle, overcame poverty, a language barrier, and above all, discrimination."

Many of the protesters advocated keeping Columbus Day and making Indigenous Peoples’ Day a separate holiday—an option that the City Council rejected.

"We are all citizens in a democracy, we are all here to work with each other, and by making this Indigenous People’s Day, we are adding something—we are not taking something away,” Councilmember Nick Licata, who is of Italian descent, told Italian American protesters at the meeting.