The Incline in Harrisburg

In Pennsylvania, a push to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day

No one thinks the legislation has a chance, but it’s symbolic.

Red paint on the Columbus statue in Pittsburgh.

Red paint on the Columbus statue in Pittsburgh.

Justin Merriman/American Reportage
Sarah Anne Hughes

HARRISBURG — Today, the federal government and most U.S. states will recognize Columbus Day to mark the Genoese explorer’s first expedition to the Americas. That won’t be the case in Alaska and South Dakota, where the holiday has been officially replaced by celebrations of indigenous people.

State Rep. Chris Rabb of Philadelphia wants to add Pennsylvania to the list.

The Democrat released a memo Friday seeking co-sponsors for a proposal that “would remove statutory reference to Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, recognized on the second Monday in October.

The chances of the idea gaining momentum and turning into legislation are not good — but that’s not the point.

“It’s never getting to the House floor,” Rabb said of his bill, noting that most legislation introduced by Democrats doesn’t move out of committee.

Rather, Rabb said, he plans to introduce the legislation “because I wanted people to know we care about this issue,” and that there are legislators “who affirm their concerns about honoring genocide and misinformation.”

A sign outside Rep. Chris Rabb's district office

A sign outside Rep. Chris Rabb's district office

While children are taught catchy rhymes about Christopher Columbus’ voyages, historians say his arrival in the Americas sparked the genocide of native people by Europeans. Columbus and his men also enslaved hundreds of indigenous peoples.

Despite this history, Italian immigrants in America embraced Columbus as they themselves faced discrimination and violence. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization that adopted the explorer as its patron, successfully lobbied President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to make Columbus Day a national holiday in 1937.

In the late 1970s, activists introduced the idea of replacing Columbus Day with one celebrating indigenous peoples. Since then, dozens of municipalities across the country have adopted the change — but none in Pennsylvania.

Italian-Americans in Philadelphia have pushed back against the idea of replacing the holiday, even though city council has never proposed doing so.

Organizers of Pittsburgh’s Columbus Day parade last year floated the idea of changing the name and theme to incorporate more cultures, but not because of the Columbus controversy or fact that a statue of the explorer has been vandalized multiple times.

“We stand behind the Christopher Columbus name and will continue to do so here in Pittsburgh,” Guy Costa, the city’s chief operations officer and a parade organizer, said recently.

(The Columbus Day parade in Bloomfield was cancelled this year after its organizer died, KDKA-TV reported.)

Under a Pa. House resolution passed in 2015, the first Saturday of October is known as Indigenous Peoples Day. In September of this year, the House also adopted a resolution that recognizes October as Indigenous Peoples’ Month, and the week after the second Monday as Indigenous Peoples’ Week.

In the other chamber last year, the state Senate adopted a resolution to recognize November as Native American Heritage Month, as the federal government does.

A wholesale replacement of Columbus Day with one celebrating indigenous peoples in Pennsylvania is unlikely, to say the least. But Rabb, a self-described “unapologetic progressive,” said it’s important for legislators to plant a stake in the ground and show where they stand on social justice issues like this.

“It’s never too early or inappropriate to speak on behalf of marginalized communities.”

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