In the nation’s capital, there is no Columbus Day. The D.C. Council voted to replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2019. And the capital is certainly not alone. D.C. joined an already-growing list of places that no longer observe the day, even though it remains a federal holiday.
Columbus Day falls on the second Monday of October, commemorating the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492, when he landed in the Bahamas on Oct. 12. Until this year, it was one of 11 official “city holidays” in Philadelphia, when city government buildings and services close and staff are given a day off.
In 1990, South Dakota became the first state to rename Columbus Day. Over the years, more than a dozen other states have followed suit, from Maine (now observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day) to Hawaii (now observing Discoverers’ Day), along with an even larger list of cities. One that stands out: Columbus, Ohio, a city named after the very Italian-born explorer that the holiday commemorates.
Why did Philadelphia rename Columbus Day?
For several years many wondered: Would Philadelphia be next? It’s a question that was posed on our Curious Philly platform last year, where readers send in questions and our reporters track down answers. And it was a timely one. A Christopher Columbus statue, which has stood in Marconi Plaza since 1976, was expected to move out of South Philly after the Art Commission approved its removal.
» READ MORE: Why is the South Philly Columbus statue an issue?
City officials proposed the move in August 2020, saying it should be relocated “in recognition of the fact that Columbus’ legacy includes the enslavement, forcible removal, and the devastation of the Indigenous people that he encountered, and that in this current moment in our country’s history, the statue can no longer be displayed on public property.”
Opponents argued the marble statue celebrates Italian American culture, and launched a legal battle to keep it in its original place.
Despite the opposition, city leaders were open to changing how the city marks Columbus Day. (One change that did happen last year: There was no organized Columbus Day Parade, because of the pandemic.)
“We know that Columbus Day is an important symbol for many Italian Americans, including those in our city,” said city spokesperson Lauren Cox last year. “Ultimately, each individual is able to make their own choice about which holiday(s) they do or do not celebrate personally. In terms of its future as a City holiday — where City buildings and services are closed — the administration would be open to changes.”
How city holidays work
All official city holidays are outlined in the collective bargaining agreements made between the mayor’s office and the city’s four municipal unions. Any new holidays must be agreed upon by all parties. To do away with Columbus Day and/or replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, one of the city’s four municipal unions, or a city administration representative, would need to propose it during contract negotiations. And, again, all unions and the mayor would then need to agree on the change.
(Last summer, when the Columbus statue raised questions about Columbus Day, it was already too late to make the change, since the municipal union contract was already in place until July 1, 2021.)
“The issue of holidays, not just Columbus Day, is being discussed internally,” said Cathy Scott, president of AFSCME District Council 47, in 2020.
But there seemed to be momentum for this change. “There’s certainly ... a kind of moral force at work to rename and dissolve the mythic histories that have controlled our thinking about historical events,” said Matt Wray last year. Wray is an associate professor of sociology at Temple University whose research focuses on race and ethnicity. “Columbus is not only charged with being an enslaver but also an architect of racist genocide and a harbinger of massive land theft of Indigenous people.”
Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Philadelphia
Philadelphia has recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day for a decade, but it’s mostly symbolic. Why? City Council cannot appoint official city holidays, but can only mark observances. (The difference: On official city holidays, services shut down; on others, business carries on as usual.)
In 2011, Council proposed and approved a resolution “recognizing and honoring the achievements, traditions and contributions of American Indians, also known as ‘Indigenous peoples’ of the City of Philadelphia.” Philadelphia’s first Indigenous Peoples’ Day was declared on Oct. 8, 2011, and falls on the first Saturday of every October after that. Yet, without the designation of an official city holiday, few know the recognition exists.
“There are 17 Council members, and any of them can introduce ceremonial proclamations on any topic at any time,” explained Joe Grace, director of communications for the Philadelphia City Council President’s Office, in 2020. “But only the mayor’s office, in negotiations with its municipal workforce, has the authority to declare city holidays.”
So, what happened this year? The city simply renamed the existing holiday.
On January 27, 2021, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order which made Juneteenth an official city holiday, and renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day:
“WHEREAS, the story of Christopher Columbus is deeply complicated. For centuries, he has been venerated with stories of his traversing the Atlantic and “discovering” the “New World”. The true history of his conduct is, in fact, infamous. Mistakenly believing he had found a new route to India, Columbus enslaved indigenous people, and punished individuals who failed to meet his expected service through violence and, in some cases, murder; WHEREAS, over the last 40 years many states and cities have acknowledged this history by recognizing the holiday known as Columbus Day instead as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. These jurisdictions include: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.; ... The City holiday celebrated on the second Monday in October, formerly known as Columbus Day, shall now be designated as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
According to CBS3, the city was also pursing codifying these changes in its Collective Bargaining Agreements with the four municipal worker unions. There also remain legal challenges.
How to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day
In the meantime, you can celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday, Oct. 11:
Indigenous Peoples’ Day Philly celebration 2021 (Community / in-person / outdoors) Philly with Standing Rock, Philadelphia Assembled and Indigenous Peoples Day Philly host a celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day with artists, vendors, dance, storytelling, and Lenape guests. There has been an Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration for more than a decade, but this is the first time the day is officially recognized by the city. The event will be held at Shackamaxon, also known as Penn Treaty Park. (Oct. 11, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 1301 N. Beach St., facebook.com)
This article has been updated since it first posted. Staff reporter Laura McCrystal contributed to this story.
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