“Columbus Day” vs. “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”: What Should This Holiday Be Called?

Text that says "Indigenous" and lists Native American tribes on a dark blue background

The death of George Floyd in May 2020 has sparked a cultural reckoning with systemic racism and violence in the US against Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, present and past—including the very story many of us are taught about the “discovery” of America.

Statues of Christopher Columbus, whose landing in America is commemorated on October 12 each year, have been in some instances officially taken down and in others, toppled by demonstrators.

And with COVID-19 continuing to grip the country—including afflicting minority groups at disproportionate rates—the painful history and persistent plight of Indigenous people is featured in the national discourse like never before. The calls to scrap Columbus Day for what is known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day have never been louder.

What is Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

Columbus Day is a US federal holiday that commemorates the day that Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, in the service of Spain, landed on what is now San Salvador on October 12, 1492. This day has been traditionally considered the “discovery” of America. Columbus Day has been a federal holiday since 1934.

In 1990, the state of South Dakota officially renamed Columbus Day to Native Americans’ Day to shift the holiday to one honoring the various Indigenous peoples of South Dakota. In 1992, the city of Berkeley, California, was the first to observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a result of an organized protest against a planned celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing. A committee led by Berkeley resident John Curl also successfully petitioned the city council to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Christopher Columbus is a very problematic figure both due to his own personal involvement in the slave trade and abuse of the Indigenous people he encountered. It’s also increasingly controversial to remember him for “discovering” a part of a part of the world where many different and complex cultures had already been living for thousands of years.

Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas also encouraged many other European explorers to travel across the ocean and begin colonizing the Western hemisphere. This long, violent era of European colonialism resulted in widespread death of Indigenous people, destruction of their cultures and ways of life, and dislocation from their ancestral lands.

Since the 1990s, many states and cities across the United States—a country whose history cannot be separated from this colonialism and conquest—have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Indigenous Peoples’ Day honors the Indigenous people of the Americas, recognizes the ongoing impact colonialism has had on them, and celebrates the many different cultures of Indigenous peoples. Today, 14 states and the District of Columbia officially celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. An increasing number of cities and towns across the US are also observing it instead of Columbus Day.

Honor the cultures of Indigenous peoples in America by learning some of the words in English that directly originate from their languages.

In 2020 more than ever before, the term Indigenous has increased in use and urgency in step with visibility and voice of Indigenous people in mainstream culture, especially in the context of the systemic injustices they face.

But, what does Indigenous mean exactly, and how do you use it?

What does indigenous mean?

The lowercase i meaning of indigenous is “originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country; native” as in Bengal tigers are indigenous to India. It can also mean “innate; inherent; natural” as in Compassion is an emotion indigenous to human beings. 

Some synonyms for the lowercase indigenous are native, domestic, or endemic. And make sure not to confuse indigenous with indigent, which means “needy” or “impoverished,” or endogenous, “growing or proceeding internally.”

Recorded in English as early as 1640–50, indigenous comes from the Latin indigena, meaning “native” or “original inhabitant.” This Latin is based on roots that literally translate to “born in.”

When should you capitalize Indigenous?

The word indigenous is capitalized when relating to or being a people who are the original, earliest known inhabitants of a region, or are their descendants. For example: The Indigenous Maori of New Zealand have a rich culture or She studied the Indigenous languages of North America.

Recently, Dictionary.com made the decision to capitalize Black across our entire dictionary. We’re also capitalizing Indigenous, as it refers to people, for all relevant entries in our site—another major update.

Similar to capitalizing Black, capitalizing Indigenous confers the due dignity to the identity, culture, and history of Indigenous people around the world. From genocide to stolen land, European colonialism has caused immeasurable suffering to Indigenous people—a suffering that persists today, from facing disproportionate poverty to being erased in popular culture. Capitalizing Indigenous also aligns with the practice of using initial capital letters for many other ethnic groups and national identities, e.g., Hispanic.

Always ask for the preferred term

One more insidious way Indigenous people get erased in culture is that many of us don’t know—or don’t consider to know—what Indigenous people want to be called.

By far, the best practice when talking about (or to!) an individual person is to respect the terms that different people use to refer to themselves and their cultural identity. While many Indigenous tribes and nations definitely accept and use more general terms such as Native American, American Indian, or, increasingly, Indigenous people, many individuals prefer the name of their tribe or nation, such as Diné for Navajo people or Inupiaq for the Indigenous people of Alaska.

Learn more about the Sioux in our article, “Who Are The Sioux And Why Are They Losing Their Language?

But, if we are to use an overarching, collective term for the original inhabitants of a land, specifically as they were displaced, oppressed, or killed by colonists, what is the best term to use?

There is no one answer to that question. Around the world, a variety of different terms for original inhabitants are used throughout history, and the acceptability of these terms has evolved or time—and remains in flux.

Let’s begin with terms commonly used in the United States and then move to major terms used elsewhere in the world.

WATCH: Have You Ever Found One Word That Helped You Define Yourself?

How to refer to the Indigenous peoples of the United States

As of the 2020 census, the official terms used by the federal government of the United States are American Indians or Indians for the over 700 federally recognized Indigenous tribes of the mainland continental United States. Alaska Natives is the official term for the Indigenous peoples of Alaska and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders in Hawaii and US territories such as Guam and American Samoa.

The AP Stylebook—an English grammar style and usage guide used by thousands of publications across the country—considers both American Indian and Indian acceptable alongside Native American for mainland US tribes or nations collectively. However, the AP strongly encourages the use of a specific name of a tribe when describing an individual. Beginning in July 2020, the AP declared that Indigenous has to be capitalized “in reference to original inhabitants of a place”—guidance that helped inform our own move to capitalize Indigenous across our site. Expect to see capital-I Indigenous to rapidly increase as mainstream news outlets follow this example.

The US federal government doesn’t officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day; the formal name of the federal holiday occurring on October 12 is still “Columbus Day.” However, state and local governments are free to use whatever name they want for this day, and a variety of places have officially renamed the holiday to Indigenous People’s Day.

How to refer to the Indigenous peoples of Canada

The government of Canada uses a variety of terms to refer to the peoples within their country. Canada uses Indigenous in relevant administrative department names, e.g., Indigenous Services Canada. Canada considers the term Aboriginal peoples (note the capitalized A in Aboriginal) as an acceptable alternative to Indigenous peoples.

The country of Canada officially recognizes the Inuit, the Métis, and the First Nations (or Indians) as the three Indigenous groups of Canada. The term Indian appears to only be used in reference to special legal status given to people as part of the Indian Act of 1985, and is otherwise generally avoided. The term Aboriginal peoples was used for all these groups as recently as the 2016 Canadian Census.

Canada recognizes June 21 as National Indigenous Peoples Day, renamed from National Aboriginal Day in 2017. Canada has celebrated this holiday since 1996.

Outside of government, there is flux and variance in the terms people use. However, the word Indigenous is quickly replacing the Aboriginal within Indigenous communities themselves, and the terms Indian and Amerindian are avoided due to their connection to Christopher Columbus and European colonialism.

How to refer to the Indigenous peoples of Australia

In 2019, Australia formed the National Indigenous Australians Agency, which uses the terms Indigenous Australians and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. The latter term, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, was used in the 2016 Australian census, and will be used again in its 2021 census. The Australian government on the whole appears to favor the term Indigenous Australians.

Today, using the nouns Aborigine and Aboriginal to refer to Indigenous Australians is considered offensive. As an adjective referring to Indigenous Australian people, the term Aboriginal is still acceptable in the phrase Aboriginal Australians. Note that this use of Aboriginal is capitalized.

The noun aborigine, as well as the adjective and noun aboriginal, are OK when referring to regions outside of Australia. For example: the aborigines of Peru and Ecuador; the aboriginal people of Bali; the aboriginals of Siberia. As with lowercase-i indigenous, note the lowercase use of a in aborigine/aboriginal in this context.

How to refer to the Indigenous Peoples of Latin and South America

In Latin America and South America, there has never been a holiday named after Christopher Columbus. Instead, many of the nations that make up this large and diverse part of the world celebrate such holidays as Día de la Raza (“Day of the Race”) or Día de la Hispanidad (“Hispanic Day”).

In recent years, some countries have renamed these holidays to emphasize the history of their specific Indigenous people, shifting the holiday away from remembrance of European colonization. For example, Nicaragua and Venezuela renamed the October 12 holiday to Día de la Resistencia Indígena (“Day of Indigenous Resistance”) to emphasize Spanish colonization that involved genocide.

Indigenous peoples are not a monolith

Take the time and effort to learn the words that individual people use for themselves. Every indigenous community—and every member in them—has their own distinct, complex identities. It is vital that we don’t further erase them by being too broad.

In doing so, you also take the first steps in learning more about the rich culture and history of such people as the Yup’ik (Alaska Natives) or discovering the difference between the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people, commonly grouped together as the “Sioux.”

Many white people have no problem doing that for different European groups, e.g., French vs. Italian vs. German. But when it comes to Asia, Africa, and Indigenous peoples? In white dominant culture, these incredibly diverse and populous groups get lumped together.

If you need to refer to the original inhabitants of a land collective, Indigenous people is the favored term. Native has become outdated and has negative connotations similar to savage and primitive, as our lexicographers note.

 

The way we wield language matters, whether we are talking about Indigenous peoples or anyone else. In fact, do you know the difference between Hispanic and Latino, and when it’s appropriate to use each word?

The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

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