The Evolution of Columbus Day Celebrations, From Italian Immigrant Pride to Indigenous Recognition

The holiday has been controversial practically since its inception

Columbus Day protest
Signs calling for the abolition of Columbus Day formed the backdrop for a protest in front of city hall in Flagstaff, Arizona. AP Photo/Arizona Daily Sun, Jake Bacon

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It’s a rhyme many people remember from their elementary school days, when they learned about the different explorers who came to the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, including Christopher Columbus.

People in the United States have been holding celebrations of Columbus since 1792, when the Society of St. Tammany, also known as the Columbian Order, commemorated the 300th anniversary of his landing in the “New World.” (Ironically, the Columbian Order appropriated language from the very peoples who suffered because of their eponymous hero: adopting a legendary Delaware chief as their patron and using titles like “brave” and “sachem” for their members.)

Union Square Columbus Day Parade
A Columbus Day parade in Union Square, Manhattan, 1892 New York Public Library Digital Collections

On the next centennial, in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to celebrate Columbus’ discovery and the four centuries of American life he’d enabled, describing the Renaissance explorer as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.”  In honoring Columbus, Harrison also hoped to encourage acceptance of Italian immigrants, who shared a heritage with the Renaissance explorer and had been violently attacked in the United States. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a federal holiday.

In 2021, the United States officially added another designation to October’s second Monday: Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The proclamation followed decades of protest against Columbus Day celebrations, as awareness of the explorer’s horrific conduct towards Indigenous people increased. Many had begun to ask: Why celebrate such plundering and pillaging?

In 1990, South Dakota became the first state to officially recognize Columbus Day as Native American Day, reported the New York Times. And in 1992, Berkeley, California, became the first city to declare Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Each year since then, the city has celebrated with a pow wow and Indian market, organized by local residents.

From early romanticism of Columbus’ New World voyage to complicated commemorations of Indigenous culture and history, here’s a timeline showing the evolution of celebrations on October’s second Monday.

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