Growing up on the Sandia Pueblo Reservation, New Mexico state Rep. Derrick J. Lente learned the same Christopher Columbus stories in school that his parents and grandparents had learned.
“I was taught he discovered my ancestors, essentially, no matter how far removed we are from the ocean,” said Lente, 40. Sandia people have cultivated land near Albuquerque since 1300 A.D. and trace their lineage to the Aztec civilization.
“Christopher Columbus didn’t find us,” he said. “We have our own creation stories, our own language, our own history.”
Lente later learned the Italian explorer, who set out to find a trade route to Asia, landed in the Bahamas in October 1492 and never set foot on what would become the United States. He concluded that Columbus “led genocide, rape, pillage and death, and he tried to extinguish a large Native American population.”
This year, Lente, a second-term Democrat — in a state where more than a tenth of residents are American Indian — successfully sponsored a bill ditching Columbus Day, fighting back attempts to rename the holiday New Mexico Day or Friendship Day.
Instead, the new Indigenous Peoples’ Day state holiday will be celebrated with Native American dancers, speakers, arts and food at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
But to New Mexico state Sen. William E. Sharer, a Republican who opposed the change, the new holiday is a “slap at Americans. All Americans.”
He has no problem with creating Indigenous Peoples’ Day in a state with 23 tribes and pueblos, but scrapping Columbus? “There’s no reason to turn it into an anti-American holiday,” Sharer said.
“Columbus was the first step to creating the American idea,” Sharer said. “The way it’s brought up, Columbus was evil, a rapist and a murderer who enslaved people, and everything that comes after should be destroyed.”
The debate over the holiday has split more statehouses this year, growing heated as it touches on immigration, race and equality at a time when those issues increasingly divide the country.
Maine and Vermont also will observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the first time this year after they passed similar bills. (States vary on whether and where to put the apostrophe in "Peoples.")
But efforts to rename Columbus Day ran aground in several legislatures this year, including in Colorado — the first state to adopt the holiday, in 1907 — Kansas, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Montana. And Columbus Day, celebrated the second Monday in October, remains a federal holiday.
Since the 1970s, critics have charged Columbus’ brutality toward native peoples in the New World — including slavery and forced conversion to Catholicism — made a holiday in his honor inappropriate at best.
Advocates for and against Columbus take strong positions. For example, historian David E. Stannard, author of “American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World,” published in 1992, argues that wherever Europeans and whites went, native people were subject to imported plagues and atrocities, resulting in the annihilation of 95% of their populations.
On the other side, opponents of renaming the day argue the change denigrates the role of Italian Americans and all immigrants in creating American society.
“Columbus is an Italian icon. We’ve adopted him as our hero,” said Robert Ferrito, president of Sons of Italy’s Commission for Social Justice and past president of the group’s New York Grand Lodge.
“It’s a shame what’s happening — demonizing Columbus,” Ferrito said. “This is part of the politically correct movement.”
Attitudes seem split by generation. College students are 70% in favor of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, according to a new poll from College Pulse, a polling company focused on college students.
But a 2017 Rasmussen Reports poll found 58% of adults in the general population supported keeping Columbus Day.
Columbus did take natives back to Spain as slaves and intended to Christianize all those he met, said Kris Lane, a professor of colonial Latin American history at Tulane University.
“There’s no positive legacy of Columbus when it comes to native folks,” Lane said. But at the same time, the historical record does not support the idea Columbus tried to exterminate the native population, he added.
“If you look at the indigenous side and the Italian American side, they both attach extraordinary emotional weight and significance to this individual, Columbus,” said Lane, who supports abolishing the holiday. “It’s genuine emotion, not to be taken lightly.”
South Dakota was the first state to rename Columbus Day, in 1990, electing to go with Native Americans’ Day. Alaska was second, in 2017, enacting Indigenous Peoples Day. Three other states — New Mexico, Maine, Vermont — followed suit this year. And Washington, D.C., this week renamed the holiday, pending congressional approval.
Beyond legislation, some governors have at least temporarily changed the name. Wisconsin this week ditched Columbus when Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, signed an executive order. Former Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, in 2016 also signed an executive order. And Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed one last year. Governors' proclamations must be renewed each year.
In Michigan, state Sen. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat, introduced similar legislation this week.
And Oregon, which does not recognize Columbus Day, began celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day in 2017.
More than a hundred cities and counties, as well as many universities, have also renamed the holiday, according to The New York Times.
Hawaii in 1988 passed a law to observe Discoverers’ Day on the second Monday in October in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands.
In April, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt — a Republican and the only sitting governor enrolled in a Native American tribe, the Cherokee Nation — signed a bill into law moving Native American Day from November to the second Monday in October, combining it with Columbus Day. Last year, then-Gov. Mary Fallin, also a Republican, vetoed a similar bill.
Fallin said in her veto message that combining the holidays “could be viewed as an intentional attempt to diminish” Native American Heritage Month in November, but her veto upset many Native Americans, who felt she was insensitive, the Associated Press reported.