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Biden becomes first president to commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day

President Biden on Oct. 8 also signed a proclamation restoring protections for two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, in Utah. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden on Friday became the first president to commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, hailing Native Americans’ strength and resilience, while also marking Columbus Day with a proclamation noting the explorer’s accomplishments but also acknowledging the detrimental impact of his pilgrimages on Native Americans.

The White House issued two separate statements for Monday’s events. Biden’s recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a reversal from his predecessor: former president Donald Trump railed against “radical activists” trying to sully Christopher Columbus’s legacy.

“Since time immemorial, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have built vibrant and diverse cultures — safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations,” Biden wrote in the Indigenous Peoples’ Day proclamation.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded on Oct. 8 to reporters’ questions about President Biden’s two proclamations released on the same day. (Video: The Washington Post)

“For generations, federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures,” he added. “Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”

In his proclamation on Columbus Day, the president praised the broader contributions of Italian Americans to the United States, marking the anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in what would eventually be called the Americas.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day to replace Columbus Day in the District, other jurisdictions

“More than 500 years ago, after securing the support of Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II, Christopher Columbus launched the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria from the coast of Spain in 1492,” the president said. “Today, millions of Italian Americans continue to enrich our country’s traditions and culture and make lasting contributions to our Nation — they are educators, health-care workers, scientists, first responders, military service members, and public servants, among so many other vital roles.”

In the same statement, Biden referenced the ramifications of Columbus’s actions and those of other European explorers.

“For Native Americans, western exploration ushered in a wave of devastation: violence perpetrated against Native communities, displacement and theft of Tribal homelands, the introduction and spread of disease, and more,” he wrote. “On this day, we recognize this painful past and recommit ourselves to investing in Native communities, upholding our solemn and sacred commitments to Tribal sovereignty, and pursuing a brighter future centered on dignity, respect, justice, and opportunity for all people.”

Columbus Day has been celebrated on the second Monday of October since 1971, after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation making it a federal holiday. But in more recent years — amid the push to remove statues memorializing people who held racist and other discriminatory worldviews — efforts have been made to take down some monuments honoring the Italian explorer.

Meanwhile, fourteen states and more than 100 localities honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Asked about the separate proclamations for Oct. 8, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the day is both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, with no discussion of ending the federal holiday.

“Recognizing today as Indigenous Peoples’ Day is something that the president felt strongly about personally. He’s happy to be the first president to celebrate and to make it the history of moving forward,” she said.

Trump faced criticism from multiple groups during his presidency for not acknowledging how Columbus set in place a generations-long pattern of abuse and discrimination. He referred to the explorers as “intrepid heroes” in 2020.

“Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy,” he said at the time. “These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions.”

Frustration with Trump among various Native American groups helped increase turnout in the 2020 election, helping Biden perform well in some states with significant Native American populations, such as Arizona.