Hawaii News

U.S. Sen. Schatz says Indigenous Peoples’ Day should become federal holiday

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Dancers display their hula skills at the 2019 Cultural Festival at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. (J. Wei/National Park Service)

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement issued today that Indigenous Peoples’ Day should be designated as a federal public holiday.

The federal holiday on the second Monday in October originally was named Columbus Day in 1937, officially celebrating the anniversary of Christopher Columbusʻ arrival in the Americas. It was enacted by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But 17 states, including Hawaiʻi, do not recognize it, protesting what it represents: the colonial takeover of the Americas, starting with Columbus.

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In Hawaiʻi, the State Legislature in 2023 officially made the second Monday of October Indigenous Peopleʻs Day with the enactment of Senate Bill No. 732. The state had been officially observing the holiday at Discoverersʻ Day since Act 220 of 1988, in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands.

The bill said the State Legislature finds that indigenous peoples, including Native Hawaiians, have contributed to the world through rich histories, knowledge and cultural practices despite generations of federal and state policies sought to bring shame, force assimilation, displace indigenous peoples and eradicate native cultures.  

It added that new infectious diseases introduced by Western contact, resulted in an 84% decline in the Native Hawaiian population in the first 60 years after Captain James Cook arrived in the islands in 1778.

The Hawaiʻi bill said the movement to replace Columbus Day began in 1990, with South Dakota becoming the first state to rename the holiday.  Since 1992, a growing grassroots effort to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day has spread to 17 states and the District of Columbia.  

“In 2021 and 2022, President Biden issued a proclamation that recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday of October, with the latter proclamation ‘honor[ing] the sovereignty, resilience and immense contributions that Native Americans have made to the world.’  Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes the continued survival of the descendants of indigenous peoples worldwide, including Native Hawaiians, and in Hawaiʻi, honors the individuals who first made the islands habitable.”

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The Hawaiʻi bill also says: “While Discoverers’ Day acknowledges the ancestors of Native Hawaiians and other indigenous Polynesians who discovered Hawaiʻi, recognizing and designating Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a state holiday will serve as a day to educate Hawaiʻi’s people about the State’s obligation to the original inhabitants of the ʻāina, or land, and the State’s continued protection of all rights customarily and traditionally exercised by the descendants of those native people, as well as to celebrate the revival of previously-taboo cultural practices, such as hula and olelo Hawaiʻi, and all cultures that form Hawaiʻi today.”

With Hawaiʻi’s designation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an official state holiday, the state repealed the designation of election days as state holidays.

Last week, Schatz joined a bill to designate Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a federal public holiday.

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“Indigenous Peoples’ Day gives us all an opportunity to reflect on and recognize the enduring contributions Native people have made to our country,” Schatz said in his statement. “Recognizing this day as a federal holiday would be a meaningful step toward strengthening our commitment to Native communities, addressing past injustices, and deepening the federal trust responsibility to the indigenous peoples of the United States.”

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