Heard on the Hill

Ditch Columbus Day? Some Places Already Have

Sen. Mike Rounds’ state celebrates indigenous people instead, and has since 1990

The statue of Christopher Columbus is framed by wreaths left over from the Columbus Day celebration in front of Union Station in Washington in 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s still a federal holiday. But more and more places are moving to replace Columbus Day.

South Dakota did it first, in the 1990s. “It’s about reconciliation. It’s about trying to bring people from different cultures, different backgrounds, different races together,” said Republican Sen. Mike Rounds.

His state celebrates Native Americans’ Day — honoring the people who endured genocide at the hands of colonists, not the Italian explorer who “sailed the ocean blue.”

“Here we were celebrating Christopher Columbus Day. … [He was an] individual who came here from Europe, and there was no recognition of those who were already here,” the senator said Friday, as the federal government prepared to shutter for the holiday.

The Mount Rushmore State is home to 70,000 American Indians across several different tribes, and the senator keeps a traditional star quilt hanging in his office.

Alaska just made the switch to Indigenous Peoples’ Day last year, and cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and Ithaca, New York, have done the same.

So what does that mean for the fate of Columbus Day at the federal level? No movement has coalesced in Congress to rethink the public holiday, which was popularized by Franklin D. Roosevelt and later fixed to the second Monday in October by a 1968 law.

Rounds said his state did what was right for South Dakotans, and he’d “be happy to share” that success with anyone.

New York Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi is one lawmaker who hopes Columbus Day remains alive and well.

“I’m a first generation Italian-American,” he said. “My father was born in Italy and lived a great American success story. Like many of us, when we grow up, we learn about the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Columbus Day was a big part of our lives,” Suozzi said.

His father came to the U.S. in the 1920s and faced discrimination.

“It’s hard to imagine in today’s culture that Italians were actually discriminated against, but they were,” Suozzi said. “When you’re growing up and you hear about Italian-Americans playing such an important role in the founding of our country, it makes a difference.”

In September he introduced a resolution in the House calling Columbus a “true hero,” echoing an op-ed he co-wrote for the New York Daily News last year with another Italian-American, Republican Rep. John J. Faso. When the federal holiday was established, it was a “milestone” for Catholics and Italian immigrants, the pair wrote.

“It’s really an Italian holiday,” Suozzi told me. “I recognize the debate that exists, and people should be educated about the bad acts of explorers and that time in the world. But … Columbus really represents someone that did something dramatic at the time to cross the ocean and help find the new world.”

While Suozzi would support efforts to expand Indigenous Peoples’ Day, “I just don’t think it should be necessarily on Columbus Day,” he said.