Editor’s note: We’re resharing this story on Oct. 11, 2021, the first time Indigenous Peoples Day is a federal holiday. This story was originally published in 2017.
Indigenous Peoples Day, the holiday that celebrates Native American culture and its people, is celebrating its 25th anniversary in Berkeley this week. It’s also the holiday that began as a Bay Area counter-protest to Columbus Day.
Here’s how it happened: In the 1980s, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan created the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission. Its job was to come up with a grand celebration to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.
The plan was for replicas of Columbus’ three ships to sail along the East Coast and then over to California.
“They were going to go into the Panama Canal, and sail into the San Francisco Bay as part of this national hoopla,” says John Curl, Berkeley resident and one of the original organizers of the first Indigenous Peoples Day.
Curl says, this idea of having the Bay Area as the centerpiece of Columbus Day celebrations did not sit well with him and a lot of other native people. So they formed a group to counter-protest the jubilee. They called themselves “Resistance 500.”
“The Bay Area is a pretty progressive place and we did not want to be the center of a national celebration of imperialism and colonialism and genocide,” Curl says. “We tried to turn it into something different, something positive.”
That’s exactly what they did. In 1992, just weeks before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival, Curl and other native leaders convinced Berkeley’s City Council to get rid of Columbus Day and instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. On Oct. 12, 1992, Berkeley became the first official city in the U.S. to celebrate the holiday.
25 years later, several other cities have followed suit, including Seattle, Austin and Los Angeles.
“All we did was plant the seeds for this and we’ve just tended to it for over 20 years,” Curl says.
And if you’re wondering what happened to the grand Columbus Day celebration that was planned to end in the San Francisco Bay, that ship never sailed.
Berkeley will celebrate its 25th annual Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow on Saturday, Oct. 14.