Indigenous Peoples Day celebrates Native heritage

October 3, 2023
Concept illustration of indigenous people. Image credit: Nicole Smith


The second Monday in October is observed as a federal holiday, but many communities nationwide are changing their focus to celebrate Native Americans rather than the explorer whose efforts led to slavery and violence against them centuries ago.

University of Michigan law professor Matthew Fletcher, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, says the day (Oct. 9) should not honor Christopher Columbus, in part, since he “discovered” land already occupied by Indigenous people. In fact, cities and states are increasingly replacing “Columbus Day” with “Indigenous Peoples Day” to celebrate Native American culture and contributions to society.

Why has Columbus Day been controversial?

Columbus Day is controversial because this holiday celebrates the man as the “discoverer” of the Western Hemisphere. Columbus was the first of many horrific colonizers who murdered and enslaved Indigenous people for more than five centuries. The descendants of the millions of people living in North and South America that Columbus supposedly discovered often consider it offensive to celebrate this man.

What is the origin of Indigenous Peoples Day? What role has the lack of a Native American curriculum in schools played?

Indigenous Peoples Day began as a means to honor the hundreds of tribal nations that have contributed so much to American culture, including the diversity of foods and ecological knowledge that is such a strength for the entire country. American Indian tribes are also important governing institutions in the United States, leading the nation forward in the face of climate change, for example. American schools do relatively little to teach students about the importance of tribal nations.

You mentioned the importance of tribal nations. Talk about the impact of more universities and colleges issuing land acknowledgments.

Land acknowledgments symbolize respect for the natural and human resources that tribal nations have contributed. Many American universities, including the University of Michigan, were established on Indian lands and with tribal treaty annuities for the purpose of providing education to Indigenous children.

As someone who teaches Federal Indian Law and Tribal Law, what does this day mean for you?

Indigenous Peoples Day helps me direct students’ attention to the real-world benefits that tribal nations offer to the greater United States. The history of colonization is important to acknowledge, but the real work is ahead.