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Indigenous People's Day is a federal holiday now. Activists want to drop Columbus Day

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today is Indigenous Peoples' Day and recognized for the first time in a U.S. presidential proclamation. President Biden said he wants to honor Native Americans and their contributions to American society, along with the brutal history of discrimination and genocide against them. He also issued a proclamation to still recognize today as Columbus Day, a federal holiday since 1937. And that joint recognition of Christopher Columbus's legacy comes with significant tension.

DYLAN BACA: Should we recognize a man who raped, killed children, killed women, decimated the Native American population here?

CORNISH: That's Dylan Baca, a 19-year-old Arizona activist who co-founded the Indigenous Peoples Initiative. He told NPR's Emma Bowman his group had been, among others, working with the White House to help draft President Biden's proclamation on today's observance. Not every city or state has to observe a federal holiday, and some may still not observe Indigenous Peoples' Day. Others are choosing to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day, say Oregon. State Representative Tawna Sanchez, a Native American of Shoshone Bannock and Ute descent, says that's a big deal considering her state's history.

TAWNA SANCHEZ: Oregon was designed as a very racist state. It was designed as an all-white state, so annihilation was necessary on some levels.

CORNISH: But other states like Utah are leaving observances up to individual cities.

ALASTAIR LEE BITSOI: I feel like the cities are obviously more progressive, but when it comes to the state, if you look at the data, there's, like, only 11 states that honor Indigenous Peoples' Day, so it says a lot.

CORNISH: Alastair Lee Bitsoi is a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune and from the Navajo Nation. He says that instead of observing Indigenous Peoples' Day today, Utah has a proposed proclamation that will recognize Native Americans in November. That's not satisfying Indigenous activists.

BITSOI: They still haven't abolished or eliminated Columbus Day in October.

CORNISH: Mandy Van Heuvelen, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe from South Dakota and the cultural interpreter coordinator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, says the growing conversation and awareness around Native issues isn't slowing down.

MANDY VAN HEUVELEN: There is growing public awareness of Indigenous peoples and their causes, like the protest at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the boarding school issue.

CORNISH: Sanchez, the Oregon state representative, says the holiday isn't just about recognition. It's about education.

SANCHEZ: It's hopefully a day where folks can reflect because people are actually taking a look at long-term racism and oppression, implicit bias, historical trauma, this moment in time of reckoning, how we've looked at all of this because history is always written by the conqueror.

CORNISH: And that's how she and many others are marking this day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.