Today is Indigenous People’s Day, the federal holiday still known in some circles as Columbus Day but since 2021 also recognized by President Biden to honor those who were here long before the arrival of the Europeans.
While Indigenous People’s Day is also observed by both the City and County of Los Angeles, however, it is not a state of California holiday, even though the original celebration began in Berkeley in 1992.
So that somewhat piecemeal designation means that places usually closed on federal holidays are indeed closed today, while some that follow state holidays/closures remain open, and those that adhere to city and/or county holiday schedules may also be closed. For example, according to a handy wrap-up today in the LA Daily News:
- Banks and bond markets are closed, though financial markets are open.
- Post offices are closed (and there’s no mail delivery)
- Metro buses and trains run on their normal weekday schedule.
- Metrolink trains are also on their normal schedule.
- LA Sanitation trash pickup is on a normal schedule.
- LAUSD schools are open as usual.
It’s interesting to note, though, that any confusion about what might be open or closed on this holiday seems rather appropriate, since our country has been wrestling with the historic (and often conflicting) myths and truths and impact and import of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” and the various legacies it begat, from almost the moment he first dropped anchor in the Bahamas.
For example, a 2002 New Yorker story about Columbus, titled “Lost Mariner,” describes how the adventurer, for centuries lionized as a brave and determined explorer bent on proving a new route to Asia, likely had more dumb luck and optimism than actual geographical knowledge, common sense, or skill. The story says he may also have been something of a con man, was convinced he’d been singled out by God, and at least at some point, “may or may not have been mad.” Also, explains the article, Columbus was definitely not the first person to believe the world might be round-ish, and he based his journeys on extremely flawed calculations. For example, he was convinced the Canary Islands were only 2,700 miles from Japan, not 13,000, and – despite four separate trips to the New World – he never stopped believing that Cuba was part of China.
And then, of course, even more troubling than Columbus’ less-than-stellar bona fides, there was the whole idea that became known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which, according to an NPR story from earlier this year, “authorized colonial powers such as Spain and Portugal to seize lands and subjugate people in Africa and the “New World,” as long as people on the lands were not Christians.” The doctrine was created through a series of decrees by the Catholic church during the 1400s, but although the proclamations were nullified in the 1500s, their legacy lived on. And on. And on.
In fact, says the NPR story, the policy “became the basis for a legal concept in the U.S., when the Doctrine of Discovery was invoked in an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Indigenous people had only rights of “occupancy,” not ownership, over lands they had long lived on. The land, then, was open for the taking.”
And this wasn’t just in the early years of the nation. In fact, says the NPR story, the Doctrine has continued to be cited “in different arenas for centuries, including by the U.S. Supreme Court — as early as 1823 and as recently as 2005.” And it’s still so persistent that the Vatican officially repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery in March of this year, something many other religious denominations have also done in the pretty recent past.
So it’s not surprising that over the last 30 years or so, as our general understanding of Columbus’ legacy has evolved, so has the holiday that honored him for so long, and so have efforts to re-frame the celebration as an opportunity to tell the full stories of the people who were in many cases nearly obliterated by Columbus’ arrival and its aftermath. Celebrating Indigenous People’s Day is just one part of the re-focusing, while others include efforts to teach more complete histories of indigenous people in U.S. public schools, including the current and ongoing contributions of indigenous American to our culture, saving indigenous languages (more than 100 are still spoken in California), mapping local indigenous populations, and even the growing use of land acknowledgements by many local institutions to recognize the original ownership of the territories occupied by our current society.
So if you’re looking for a great way to celebrate today’s holiday, we would suggest setting out on your own voyage of historic exploration, and taking the opportunity to learn more about the pre-European history of our continent.