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Regional Interests

The Push to Ditch Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples Day Began in Berkeley

Indigenous Peoples Day, the holiday that celebrates Native American cultures and peoples, celebrates its 28th anniversary on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

This year, the celebration will take place not in person, but virtually on Zoom as a COVID-19 safety measure.

Indigenous Peoples Day is also a holiday that began as a Bay Area counter-protest to Columbus Day. Here’s how it all unfolded.

Challenging Columbus

In the 1980s, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan created the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission.

Its job was to come up with a grand celebration to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. The plan was for replicas of Columbus’ three ships to sail along the East Coast and then over to California.

“They were going to go into the Panama Canal, and sail into the San Francisco Bay as part of this national hoopla,” said John Curl, Berkeley resident and one of the organizers of the first Indigenous Peoples Day.

Curl said this idea of having the Bay Area as the centerpiece of Columbus Day celebrations did not sit well with him and a lot of native people. So they formed a group to counter-protest the jubilee. They called themselves Resistance 500.

“The Bay Area is a pretty progressive place and we did not want to be the center of a national celebration of imperialism and colonialism and genocide,” Curl said. “We tried to turn it into something different, something positive.”

That’s exactly what they did. In 1992, just weeks before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival, Curl and other native leaders convinced Berkeley’s City Council to get rid of Columbus Day and instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.

‘Profoundly Disrespectful’

When the group asked the city to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992, then-Mayor Loni Hancock said it was the first time she understood the negative impact of this holiday on Indigenous people.

“We had to think about what is this holiday about and who discovered America, and how really profoundly disrespectful it was to say that a European explorer who never actually set foot on the continent did that,” Hancock told NPR’s Morning Edition in 2019.

That narrative, she said, is “discounting the Indigenous people who had lived here for centuries with very sophisticated cultures and pretty much in harmony with the earth.”

“Certainly the hundreds and thousands of Italian immigrants who came over in steerage class on the boats at the turn of the 19th century endured a lot of hardships to get here,” she added. “But the discovery of America is something where you want to get your history right.

On Oct. 12, 1992, Berkeley became the first city in the U.S. to officially celebrate the holiday.

A Lasting Legacy

Now, 28 years later, several other cities have followed suit, including Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles and most recently Washington, D.C.

“All we did was plant the seeds for this, and we’ve just tended to it for over 20 years,” Curl said.

Festivities at Berkeley’s Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow include traditional dancing. (Christopher Burquez)

And if you’re wondering what happened to the grand Columbus Day celebration that was planned to end in San Francisco Bay?

That ship never sailed.

A version of this post first published on Oct. 9, 2017

Copyright 2020 KQED