Growing up on the Sandia Pueblo Reservation, New Mexico state Rep. Derrick J. Lente learned the same Christopher Columbus stories in school that his parents and grandparents had learned.
“I was taught he discovered my ancestors, essentially, no matter how far removed we are from the ocean,” said Lente, 40. Sandia people have cultivated land near Albuquerque since 1300 A.D. and trace their lineage to the Aztec civilization.
“Christopher Columbus didn’t find us,” he said. “We have our own creation stories, our own language, our own history.”
Lente later learned the Italian explorer, who set out to find a trade route to Asia, landed in the Bahamas in October 1492 and never set foot on what would become the United States. He concluded that Columbus “led genocide, rape, pillage and death, and he tried to extinguish a large Native American population.”
This year, Lente, a second-term Democrat — in a state where more than a tenth of residents are American Indian — successfully sponsored a bill ditching Columbus Day, fighting back attempts to rename the holiday New Mexico Day or Friendship Day.
Instead, the new Indigenous Peoples’ Day state holiday will be celebrated with Native American dancers, speakers, arts and food at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
But to New Mexico state Sen. William E. Sharer, a Republican who opposed the change, the new holiday is a “slap at Americans. All Americans.”
He has no problem with creating Indigenous Peoples’ Day in a state with 23 tribes and pueblos, but scrapping Columbus? “There’s no reason to turn it into an anti-American holiday,” Sharer said.
“Columbus was the first step to creating the American idea,” Sharer said. “The way it’s brought up, Columbus was evil, a rapist and a murderer who enslaved people, and everything that comes after should be destroyed.”
The debate over the holiday has split more statehouses this year, growing heated as it touches on immigration, race and equality at a time when those issues increasingly divide the country.
Maine and Vermont also will observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the first time this year after they passed similar bills. (States vary on whether and where to put the apostrophe in "Peoples.")
But efforts to rename Columbus Day ran aground in several legislatures this year, including in Colorado — the first state to adopt the holiday, in 1907 — Kansas, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Montana. And Columbus Day, celebrated the second Monday in October, remains a federal holiday.
Since the 1970s, critics have charged Columbus’ brutality toward native peoples in the New World — including slavery and forced conversion to Catholicism — made a holiday in his honor inappropriate at best.
Advocates for and against Columbus take strong positions. For example, historian David E. Stannard, author of “American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World,” published in 1992, argues that wherever Europeans and whites went, native people were subject to imported plagues and atrocities, resulting in the annihilation of 95% of their populations.
On the other side, opponents of renaming the day argue the change denigrates the role of Italian Americans and all immigrants in creating American society.
“Columbus is an Italian icon. We’ve adopted him as our hero,” said Robert Ferrito, president of Sons of Italy’s Commission for Social Justice and past president of the group’s New York Grand Lodge.
“It’s a shame what’s happening — demonizing Columbus,” Ferrito said. “This is part of the politically correct movement.”
Attitudes seem split by generation. College students are 70% in favor of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, according to a new poll from College Pulse, a polling company focused on college students.
But a 2017 Rasmussen Reports poll found 58% of adults in the general population supported keeping Columbus Day.
Columbus did take natives back to Spain as slaves and intended to Christianize all those he met, said Kris Lane, a professor of colonial Latin American history at Tulane University.
“There’s no positive legacy of Columbus when it comes to native folks,” Lane said. But at the same time, the historical record does not support the idea Columbus tried to exterminate the native population, he added.
“If you look at the indigenous side and the Italian American side, they both attach extraordinary emotional weight and significance to this individual, Columbus,” said Lane, who supports abolishing the holiday. “It’s genuine emotion, not to be taken lightly.”
South Dakota was the first state to rename Columbus Day, in 1990, electing to go with Native Americans’ Day. Alaska was second, in 2017, enacting Indigenous Peoples Day. Three other states — New Mexico, Maine, Vermont — followed suit this year. And Washington, D.C., this week renamed the holiday, pending congressional approval.
Beyond legislation, some governors have at least temporarily changed the name. Wisconsin this week ditched Columbus when Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, signed an executive order. Former Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, in 2016 also signed an executive order. And Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed one last year. Governors' proclamations must be renewed each year.
In Michigan, state Sen. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat, introduced similar legislation this week.
And Oregon, which does not recognize Columbus Day, began celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day in 2017.
More than a hundred cities and counties, as well as many universities, have also renamed the holiday, according to The New York Times.
Hawaii in 1988 passed a law to observe Discoverers’ Day on the second Monday in October in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands.
In April, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt — a Republican and the only sitting governor enrolled in a Native American tribe, the Cherokee Nation — signed a bill into law moving Native American Day from November to the second Monday in October, combining it with Columbus Day. Last year, then-Gov. Mary Fallin, also a Republican, vetoed a similar bill.
Fallin said in her veto message that combining the holidays “could be viewed as an intentional attempt to diminish” Native American Heritage Month in November, but her veto upset many Native Americans, who felt she was insensitive, the Associated Press reported.
Maine this year also became the first state to ban Native American mascots in public schools and colleges. State Rep. Ben Collings, a Democrat, sponsored that measure and the Columbus Day one.
“Let’s be honest about it,” he said. “If we can’t respect the First People, how can we respect anyone else?”
Before the Maine legislature considered renaming Columbus Day, Collings and Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation in Maine, visited local community meetings. Dana had worked with about 10 towns in Maine that had already dropped Columbus from their calendar.
“When we celebrate Columbus Day, he’s the symbolic figure of attempted genocide,” Dana said, “and you send a message to Indians: ‘You don’t matter. We wish we’d wiped you out.’”
“We can very much relate to the Italian Americans who worry their history will be erased,” she said. “Why not have a day to recognize their accomplishments and contributions and not tie it to Columbus Day?”
But Maine state Sen. Paul Davis, a Republican who opposed the holiday change, said, “I’m not for rewriting history.
“Columbus wasn’t a good man, but he did discover America. It’s like tearing down the Confederate memorials. I’m not at all for what [the South] did, but it’s history.”
Italian Americans Split
Some Italian American groups, including the National Italian American Foundation and Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America, have battled the changes, defending Columbus as an iconic figure who changed the course of human history.
These groups say they welcome adding a holiday for indigenous people, just not at the expense of Columbus.
By opening the Western Hemisphere to Europe, Columbus symbolizes immigration and starting a new life, his supporters say.
“The horrific things that occurred were wrong,” said John F. Calvelli, vice chairman international of the National Italian American Foundation, “but it’s also wrong to use 21st century norms to judge a 15th century explorer.”
After a 2017 white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a review of “symbols of hate” in New York City focused on whether to remove the Columbus statue in Columbus Circle, among others. Italian Americans rallied around Columbus, and the statue stayed put.
But some Italian Americans support changing the holiday.
More than 50 scholars of Italian and Italian American culture formed a “NoColumbusDay” group in 2017 and petitioned the federal government to abolish the holiday. They argue Columbus could not discover a land inhabited for centuries and that he enslaved natives and brutalized indigenous people.
“These symbols have become deep emotional touchstones for people,” said Joseph Sciorra, director of the Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College, City University of New York, a founder of the NoColumbusDay group.
Sciorra, 64, said he’s of a generation that grew up thinking of Columbus and others as heroic explorers — “not as colonists and slave traders.” But he said the move reflects a shift in cultural consciousness.
Making of the Holiday
Born in Genoa, now part of Italy, in 1451, Columbus persuaded Spain’s King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella to sponsor his expedition to Asia sailing west on uncharted waters. Reaching the Caribbean islands, he mistakenly thought he had reached the East Indies and called the people Indians. He made three more voyages from Europe to the New World.
Myth-making about Columbus can be traced to author Washington Irving glorifying Columbus in 1828 with his best-selling, multi-volume, largely fictional biography, “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.”
Columbus Day has its roots in efforts to destigmatize Italian Americans when they were discriminated against as an immigrant group. Anti-Italian sentiment reached a fever pitch in 1891, when 11 Sicilians were lynched in New Orleans. President Benjamin Harrison called the lynching “deplorable.”
The next year, Harrison signed the first official proclamation recognizing Columbus Day, saying the day should celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America and calling Columbus “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.”
By the time Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1968, 45 states already recognized it, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report. (Already in 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated it a national holiday.)
By making it a federal holiday, the report said, “Congress believed that the nation would be honoring the courage and determination which enabled generations of immigrants from many nations to find freedom and opportunity in America.”
But James W. Loewen, author of the 1995 bestseller, “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” and several other books debunking myths in American history, argues Columbus Day has outlived its usefulness.
“Pick another outstanding Italian American to honor,” he said.
For Lente in New Mexico, renaming the holiday is “monumental.”
“Now for my children and unknown grandchildren, it’s in the books,” he said.