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Columbus Day in The Workplace

October brings with it a number of notable holidays. Candy and costumes reign on Halloween, an undeniably fun, if somewhat objectively absurd, celebration. International Day Of The Girl, observed on October 11th, celebrates girls and women across the world, and seeks to address the unique challenges they face. October 1st marks perhaps the one holiday that every human on the planet could agree to participate in: International Coffee Day.

In the United States, as well as countries in Central and South America, Columbus Day has been observed for over a century. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, it became a federal holiday in 1934; in 1971, it was officially attached to the second Monday in October. As its name suggests, the holiday is dedicated to Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of North America.

 

The word discovery is placed between quotation marks because, as we can now factually assert, Columbus did not discover North America. It had already been discovered, and in fact was home to thriving populations of Indigenous peoples across the continent—estimates put pre-contact population at around 10 million. Columbus is, through the holiday, credited with founding modern North American civilization. But he is also now credited with beginning the enslavement and destruction of another, one which has struggled to thrive post-contact.

 

This is where Columbus Day becomes an issue: it means different things to different people, but not in the innocuous, ‘I don’t celebrate that’ way. To Indigenous people on this continent, it is a celebration of a man who committed genocide against their populations; in a 2015 article, Washington Post asserted, “Did genocide directly result from [Columbus’] decrees and his family’s commercial aims? Yes.” In recent years, this information has been widely-platformed across the United States, where Columbus Day is most prominent. It’s resulted in states and cities across the nation rejecting Columbus Day, instead choosing to replace it with holidays that honor their native populations.

 

In South Dakota, it’s known as Native American Day; in Oregon, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This phrasing, originated in the states by the municipality of Berkeley, California in 1992, has been picking up by other cities: Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, Austin, Salt Lake City, Cambridge, and more observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

 

Given that Columbus Day is a contentious and potentially offensive occasion, it’s important to plan alternatives for your workplace—perhaps celebrations like those modeled by the aforementioned municipalities. Consider educating your staff on the histories of Columbus’ violent campaigns in the Americas, or the past and present issues visited upon Indigenous populations by colonial campaigns. Education and understanding are key tenets of a healthy, inclusive workplace, and altering how Columbus Day is celebrated in the workplace is a step towards a healthier work environment.