On Columbus Day, the explorer isn't always welcome

Columbus Day? It's Time to Celebrate True Americans
Columbus Day? It's Time to Celebrate True Americans

Native American communities in the U.S. have long pushed to rename Columbus Day and use the federal holiday to commemorate the post-colonial struggles of indigenous people. And they have inspired a growing number of U.S. cities – including Portland, Oregon, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Albuquerque, New Mexico – to take similar steps this year.

Efforts to rename the holiday "Indigenous Peoples' Day" or "Native American Day" gained momentum after representatives of indigenous groups from across the Western Hemisphere came together in Quito, Ecuador, in 1990 and agreed to use the quincentennial celebration of Christopher Columbus' trans-Atlantic voyage of 1492 as "an occasion to strengthen our process of continental unity and struggle towards our liberation." Berkeley, California, two years later became the first of an increasing number of U.S. cities – along with the state of South Dakota – to create an alternative to the federal holiday. At least eight jurisdictions have moved to adopt a different name for the day this year, following the example of Seattle and Minneapolis, which did so last year.

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The goal of renaming the holiday is to raise awareness about the history of Native Americans, as well as to galvanize public support for legislation that would improve their lives, says Brian Howard, a legislative associate for the National Congress of American Indians. Doing so can be difficult, he says, because Native Americans (including Alaska Natives) represent only 2 percent of the U.S. population, and nearly 30 percent live in poverty – around double the nation's overall poverty rate.

"Recognizing this day not only provides us with a platform to raise awareness, but it also commemorates a history of survival and perseverance," Howard says. "The perseverance of our native languages, cultures and ceremonies is the true importance of remembering something of that magnitude."

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The commemoration of Columbus in the U.S. dates back to 1792, and the explorer was first given a federal holiday in 1937. Italian-Americans have since used it as a chance to celebrate the heritage of Columbus, who was born in Genoa, Italy. John M. Viola, president of the National Italian American Foundation, says protesting the legacy of Columbus by renaming his holiday is unfair to Italians and counterproductive for Native Americans, since it solidifies "this idea of a victimized culture" rather than celebrating indigenous history.

"We are not healing old wounds by creating new ones," he says. "It is pitting two communities against each other."

But while Viola's group differs with Native American communities on how to commemorate Columbus Day, he says it recognizes the need for greater awareness about the numerous tribes dealing with many issues the average U.S. citizen doesn't face.

Poverty among Native Americans is especially high on reservations, with an average of 39 percent of reservation residents living in it, according to the National Congress of American Indians. People living on Native American reservations also are far less likely than the average American to have access to a telephone or complete plumbing, and are more likely to be living in overcrowded conditions, according to the advocacy group.

In the legal arena, there is a perceived lack of support from courts and law enforcement when it comes to crime on reservations. Between 2005 and 2009, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute nearly 52 percent of violent crimes that occurred in so-called Indian country, which includes reservations and other "dependent" Indian communities, according to a 2010 study by the Government Accountability Office. They did not prosecute 67 percent of cases related to sexual abuse.

Native Americans also make up three of the top five age groups shot dead by police, according to reporting by Mother Jones, which cited data from agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The White House called the challenges facing Native Americans "a national crisis" in a report that followed President Barack Obama's​​​​​ visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation last year. The reservation, which overlaps both North and South Dakota, had a poverty rate of 43 percent​ in 2013, according to Census Bureau data cited by the Pew Research Center​​. The Obama administration has pushed to ​​increase​ federal funding to support​​​ native communities, and its​​ ConnectHome initiative aims to increase broadband access and included the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma in its initial phase.

A big opportunity for Native American communities lies in education, where signs of progress have been seen in what is a fairly young population (The median age of Native Americans ​was 31​ in 2013, compared with 38 for the U.S. population as a whole, according to the Census Bureau.) ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ High school completion rates among Native Americans have increased from 77 percent in 2003 to 81 percent in 2014, says Jens Manuel Krogstad, an editor at the Pew Research Center.

"Improvements have been modest compared with other groups, however," Krogstad says. "Hispanics and blacks have both made more progress in high school completion than Native Americans over the past decade."

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Originally published