Vermont passes bill abolishing Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples' Day

Brattleboro resident Rich Holschuh, a member of the Vermont Commission for Native American Affairs, has been a leading advocate for permanently rebranding Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day.

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For three years, the state of Vermont has been celebrating the second Monday of October, traditionally and federally labeled as Columbus Day, as Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Vermont's former governor, a Democrat, signed a proclamation rebranding the holiday in 2016. The state's current governor, Republican Phil Scott, has continued the tradition.

Now, the state is one signature away from abolishing Columbus Day altogether and permanently recognizing Indigenous Peoples' Day — a trend gaining traction in states nationwide as Americans reckon with the colonization and harm intertwined with Christopher Columbus's legacy.

Last week, the Vermont legislature passed a bill that "will aid in the cultural development of Vermont's recognized tribes, while enabling all indigenous peoples in Vermont and elsewhere to move forward and formulate positive outcomes, from the history of colonization."

Scott has said he will likely sign the bill into law. "I see no reason that I would not sign it," the governor told the Burlington Free Press last week, "but we're reviewing the bill as we speak."

The bill would go into effect in this summer, and Oct. 14, 2019, would be the first official Indigenous Peoples' Day.

"I know it's controversial from many standpoints, from many people, but you know, it's just a day, and we'll get through it," Scott said. "And we've been treating it as something different over the last couple of years through resolutions. Without any technical difficulties within the bill, I'll probably sign it."

Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937, a day meant to honor the Italian explorer who "discovered" the Americas on Oct. 12, 1492, and to garner the support of voters with Italian heritage. The holiday was moved from Oct. 12 to the second Monday in October in 1971, to avoid the floating day of the week in which federal offices would have to close.

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Columbus's recognition on the local level, however, has never been consistent: Some states and cities did not see a need for a paid holiday for local government workers. But more recently, Columbus's problematic place in history has come to the forefront, causing states and cities across the nation to reconsider past decisions.

He sailed west from Europe in search of a new, shorter route to Asia, and landed on a Caribbean island in what is now the Bahamas. But Columbus's narrative does not end there: He also helped colonize the Caribbean islands, kick-starting centuries of genocide, theft and abuse that also fundamentally shaped the exploration and exploitation of the Western Hemisphere by Europeans, including the forefathers of what became the United States.

"Things that are symbolic can carry very far," Rich Holschuh, a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, told the Burlington Free Press. "The degree of disinformation and lack of understanding around the situation of native people in Vermont, as a microcosm of the national situation, is totally exemplified in the way that Columbus has been celebrated and the native people ignored."

Holschuh said that recognizing Indigenous Peoples' Day is "not trivial" and that it "opens up an opportunity for that story to begin to change."

Some opponents to the Vermont bill sought to preserve Columbus Day, proposing instead the dedication of a day in February to recognizing indigenous people. A Republican-led amendment was ultimately defeated.

Other states and cities nationwide have taken similar steps to leave Columbus Day in the past. In February, the city of Sandusky, Ohio, swapped Columbus Day for Election Day as a paid holiday for city employees so they can use the day to exercise their voting rights. "Columbus Day was not a way for us to show that we value our diversity," Eric Wobser, Sandusky's city manager, said at the time.

Two other states, New Mexico and South Dakota, have already legally renamed Columbus Day. Legislation in Maine is awaiting the governor's signature. Alaska declared an Indigenous Peoples' Day state holiday in 2017 — though it had never recognized Columbus Day.