October’s Second Monday: Alaska Native Resonance in the Debate About Columbus

Every year during this week in October, for the greater part of a decade, an increasing amount of articles and discussion is generated about the continued observance of Columbus Day.

It is an issue that is complex and multilayered, ripe with innumerable tangents and adjacent dialogue. But what is clear is that retaining Columbus Day as a federal holiday is becoming progressively unacceptable to a growing contingent of Americans, and that this issue is resonating with Alaska Natives as well. It’s also easy to see why.

Envision a state holiday celebrating the death of every person affected by rambling, wild disease, the unnatural removal of children from homes, the cancellation of songs and dance, and the breakdown of the social orders that have kept all Alaska Natives healthy and whole until that structure was so devastatingly interrupted; the thought is almost too much to bear.

Many share the sentiment that by the United States continuing to observe Columbus Day is the equivalent to telling indigenous people nationwide, “your history is less valued than the status quo; your experience is negotiable.”

PC Nation

With such an assembly of Americans clearly vocalizing the offense of this holiday “celebration,” more cities are changing October 12th to Indigenous Peoples Day, in honor of those who have always been.

By now I’m sure the readers of Nalliq have heard about the “political correctness epidemic” that is washing across our nation. America never used to have this problem, but why is that? Why now?

When somebody decries an action or suggestion as “just being politically correct,” it provides a catch-all reason for dismissal, removed from consideration of that voice’s request. Minority groups previously silenced have a voice that is being heard. The sense that “being PC” is coming from all angles is because in this melting pot of a nation, there are so many ethnicities, heritages, orientations, groups and sub-groups, cultures and creeds.

And perhaps instead of lamenting the state of “political correctness,” we can respect where it comes from, and see feedback and criticism as an opportunity to be better. Like believing that when indigenous people groups across the Lower 48, Hawaii and Alaska are denouncing the annual “holiday” of Columbus Day…that counts for something.

Who Owns History?

Emily Tyrrell, Iñupiaq and Yupik with family from Emmonak, works at an indigenous leadership development and policy center in Anchorage. “In spite of all odds, indigenous peoples are still here with strong and vibrant cultures. Growing up in school, I learned Columbus was a hero and a savior. When in fact, he was a murdering explorer who lost his way and landed here on accident. Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrates the strength and resilience of Native Peoples’ who stewarded and cared for these lands long before Columbus or any other explorer arrived.”

Some resistant to change worry that it will open dialogue about who owns the history that is being taught, and will tease out the challenge of how we educate children in a diverse nation with unique, and in some instances separate, regional and cultural histories.

Tyrrell continued, “My main issue with Columbus Day, and I do have a lot of them, is the simple fact that history is not being accurately taught or communicated in schools.”

An opportunity to be better.

The countless articles online will serve to detail the atrocities committed by Columbus and his men, and a quick internet search will provide an abundance of imagery. But by continuing to celebrate Columbus Day is choosing the history of another nation over being caretakers of our own. It says that the long-existent histories America’s Native peoples are less valid than the efforts of 1930’s lobbyists.

Status Quo

Columbus Day was made an official federal holiday in 1937, largely by a lobbyist who sought to establish a sense of pride in Italian heritage and the Catholic faith.

In the context of thousands of years of history in America, the establishment of this holiday was created so recently.

Sometimes, it’s easy to argue that things should remain, because they’ve always been. If they’ve always been, then they must be correct. In this scenario, remaining how we’ve always been includes the rights for the indigenous to control the narrative of our own story.

There are immeasurable accomplishments for Italy to be proud of, and incalculable service that has been executed on behalf of the church. Does it need to be at the expense of the memory of obliterated peoples; does it need to be at such a high cost to citizens of our own. America has no obligation to commemorate a person who didn’t even land in what would eventually become the United States. The history of the United States spans approximately 300 years; the history of America is thousands of years longer.


As the world saw earlier this year with restoring the name Denali to the mountain previously also known as Mt. McKinley, naming is so important. There is so much power and says so much about attitudes of people and a population’s cares; the cares of the people with the power to name.

So what does the retention of Columbus Day say about us as a nation?

The convention of a federally recognized Columbus Day was created 41 years more recently than the convention of Mt. McKinley. This indicates that there should continue to be tremendous hope and optimism that another naming convention can corrected, and peoples respected.

An opportunity to be better, for those who have always been.

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