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What is Indigenous People's Day and Why More Employers Should Recognize It

Kanarys Staff


What is Indigenous People’s Day and Why More Employers Should Recognize It

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now observe Native American or Indigenous Peoples' Day in place of or in addition to Columbus Day, and the number is still growing. The new holiday is also being recognized by more and more cities, community groups, churches, schools, and universities across the country. As the movement gains momentum and support, employers need to consider how they will recognize and celebrate this shifting holiday.


What is Indigenous People's Day?

In 1977, participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed that Indigenous Peoples' Day replace Columbus Day. The first state to act on this and establish an Indigenous Peoples' Day was South Dakota in 1990. The new holiday is usually celebrated on the same day on which Columbus Day is traditionally observed — October 12 or the second Monday in October. 


Indigenous Peoples' Day recognizes that native people are the first inhabitants of the Americas, including the lands that later became the United States of America. It serves to celebrate and raise awareness of these indigenous peoples' rich history, culture, and traditions. It also highlights their existence as a living community that continues to practice its cultures today, rather than a people who were erased from our national story by 500 years of colonial oppression and violence. 

Indigenous Peoples' Day asks Americans to relearn and rethink their history.


Columbus Day Vs. Indigenous Peoples' Day

The first documented observance of Columbus Day in the United States took place in New York City in 1892, on the 300th anniversary of Columbus's landfall in the Western Hemisphere. At that time, Italian Americans were the subject of frequent discrimination, defamation, and violence. Columbus, however, was seen as an American hero, giving Italian immigrants a path to feeling like true Americans. They viewed Columbus Day as a way to celebrate both their heritage and their contributions to their new land. Due mainly to their efforts, Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937. 

However, as modern historians began to peel back the myths of Columbus' history and uncover the brutal side of his legacy—especially relative to indigenous peoples — this annual celebration of Italian pride became controversial. 

Wounds run deep among Native Americans who see the glorification of a man who "discovered" a place where people already lived; who, as governor of Hispaniola, oversaw the murder and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of native people; and whose landing in America in the lead of colonization had disastrous long-term consequences for native populations.

History books still teach elementary students the tale of an intrepid discoverer (who never actually set foot on the soil of the land that would become the United States) and the myth of the sole voice of reason who believed the earth was round. Much of the motivation behind Indigenous Peoples' Day is to encourage schools to teach an honest and fair version of our history. 

The celebration of Italian American cultural pride initially embodied in Columbus Day is valid and important but unfortunately contaminated by its connection to the violent history of colonization and persecution of another minority group. Hopefully, solutions can be found that fully respect both groups.   


How to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous Peoples' Day or Native American Day has been observed primarily with virtual activities that raise awareness of the rich history, culture, and traditions of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. 

In the workplace, organizations have begun transitioning away from observing Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In fact, 14 states and more than 130 cities around the United States have made the decision to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of or in addition to Columbus Day. As employers, there are many ways to celebrate the holiday. Here are a few options: 


  •  Set up virtual events where native panelists can discuss the past and future of Native American Nations. 

  • Provide employees with a list of books and movies that celebrate indigenous people and depict their cultures in authentic ways. 

  • Take an official stance to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the company holiday calendar. 

  • Fundraise for and donate to local Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Organizations.


Kanarys is Your DEI Champion

At Kanarys, we are the diversity, equity, and inclusion people with the data-driven approach. Since 2018, Kanarys has aimed to change the world by creating equitable workplaces where everyone belongs. We guide your organization’s DEI path every step of the way with courage and collaboration. It starts with data, analytics and insights, and continues with recommendations and implementation. 

Our mission, as your partner and champion in the ever-evolving DEI journey: Help you understand what it takes to foster lasting, systemic change today and for tomorrow. Because when you succeed with DEI, your employees can thrive—and so can your organization.

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