Here’s why some want Indigenous People’s Day to be a federal holiday

Monday, Oct. 10, is Columbus Day in most states, but in a few states it’s known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Presidential Recognition

On October 8, 2021, President Joe Biden became the first commander-in-chief to formally recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day by issuing a proclamation celebrating the upcoming holiday. The proclamation says: “On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our Nation celebrates the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations.”

In 1990 Congress passed and President George H. W. Bush signed into law a joint resolution designating the month of November as the first National American Indian Heritage Month.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first proposed during a United Nations conference in 1977 when members of the community reported facing discrimination. It was instituted in Berkeley, California in 1992. The map below shows what states observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day officially and what observe it by proclamation.

Columbus still around

Columbus Day is still a federal holiday and Indigenous Peoples Day is not, but 10 states observe Indigenous Peoples Day via proclamation: Arizona, California, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, plus Washington, D.C.

Ten states officially celebrate it: Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont.

The passageway

It is generally accepted that the Paleo-Indians, the ancestors of Native Americans, followed herds of animals from Siberia across Beringia, a land bridge connecting Asia and North America, into Alaska.

The Pleistocene Epoch, or more commonly known as the Ice Age, began about 1.75 million years ago and ended just 10,000 years ago. While the name may suggest it was a time of endless winter for the earth, that was not the case. The earth’s climate experienced fluctuations of warm and cool temperatures that could last for a thousand years.

Toward the end of the Ice Age the earth experienced prolonged frigid conditions. In the northern region of the earth, glaciers began to form. As more and more of the earth’s water got locked up in glaciers, sea levels began to drop. The land beneath the Bering Strait became exposed and a flat grassy treeless plain emerged connecting Asia to North America.

As the Ice Age ended and the earth began to warm, glaciers melted and sea level rose. Beringia became submerged, but not all the way.

A look at the years

How long ago indigenous cultures inhabited North America is debated by scholars but some estimates are at least 15,000 years ago.This chart has lines representing 100 years and shows how long natives were established (approximately 12,000 BC) until now.

Some of the oldest established cultures

The questions archaeology is struggling to explain: When and how was North America settled? Did the first people come across the land bridge 15,000 years ago? Or on earlier land bridges formed 30,000 years ago before sea levelsrose once again? Here are some of the oldest known cultures established in North America:


Estimated era: 12000-9500 BC

Location: United States, Mexico and Central America

Language: Multiple

One of the oldest known groups, the Clovis most likely arrived on the continent from Asia via the Bering Strait. While anthropologists doubt that they were the first people here, they are still ancestors of several modern tribes. For a while, historians believed Clovis people hunted mammoths using specially designed spearheads. Like many prehistoric cultures, the Clovis later dispersed and developed into other distinct groups.

Ancestral Puebloans

Estimated first appearance: 12000-10000 BC

Location: American Southwest

Language: Multiple

Several modern tribes are thought to be descended from the ancestral Puebloans, including the Hopi, Zuni, Santa Ana, Santa Felipe, Cochiti and Nambe.

They mostly populated the Southwest, living as farmers and using clay to construct their multitiered and multiroomed pueblo homes. Since they occupied desert regions throughout what would become the U.S. and parts of Mexico, their lives depended on clever irrigation systems and rain rituals, depending on how dry the climate was.

By Christopher Columbus’ arrival: No one knows for sure how many people lived in the Western Hemisphere, but the number may have been in the millions.

At least 2,000 distinct languages were spoken in the Americas in 1492.

The term Indian originated with Columbus, who, in his search for India, thought that he had arrived in the East Indies. This led to the blanket term Indies and Indians (Spanish: indios; Portuguese: índios; French: indiens; Dutch: indianen).


According to UCLA’s resources on Native American and Indigenous Affairs: Indigenous Peoples refers to a group of Indigenous peoples with a shared national identity, such as “Navajo” or “Sami,” and is the equivalent of saying “the American people.”

Native American and American Indian are terms used to refer to peoples living within what is now the United States prior to European contact. American Indian has a specific legal context because the branch of law, Federal Indian Law, uses this terminology. American Indian is also used by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget through the U.S. Census Bureau.

Whenever possible, it is best to use the name of an individual’s particular Indigenous community or nation of people.

Census figures

In 2020, the number of people who identified as Native American and Alaska Native alone and in combination with another race was 9.7 million, up from 5.2 million in 2010. They now account for 2.9% of U.S. population.

In the past decade, they had a 160% increase that experts believe was driven by several factors, including more mixed-race families, the struggle that Latinos face during racial self-identification and Americans wanting to embrace their heritage even if they are not recognized as tribal members.

The ability to identify as AIAN in combination with another race was added in 2000.

The 2020 Census added Mayan and Aztec as possible suggestions for write-in responses to the American Indian category. This clarified all indigenous tribes are included in the category, not just U.S.-based tribes. Hispanic respondents who also indicated indigenous identity accounted for 1.8 million of the increase in people selecting AIAN.

Sources: National Park Service, U.S. Census, UCLA,, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Congress of American Indians, “American Indian History Timeline” by Shana Brown, The Associated Press

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