Kansas Democrats push to end harmful narrative of Columbus Day

Supporters say proposed change to Indigenous People’s Day would show respect, historical understanding

Rep. Christina Haswood, D-Lawrence, advocates on behalf of a bill that would change the holiday celebrated the second Monday of October from Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day in Kansas. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — American Indian legislators spoke Tuesday in support of a bill that aims to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in Kansas.

The bill seeks to recognize the “historic, cultural and contemporary significance of the Indigenous peoples” of the Americas and Kansas on the second Monday in October each year. Proponents argued the change would not only show respect for the tribal communities of Kansas but encourage a more accurate recounting of the history of the Americas.

Rep. Christina Haswood, D-Lawrence, recalled her youth and questioning why she was being taught incorrectly about Cristopher Columbus and his legacy.

“Why should we make a holiday out of somebody who did not land in North America?” Haswood said. “For the past several years, we’ve known this history to be false and harmful to Indigenous youth who are taught in schools to celebrate this day, but then go home and talk about our cultural history — the genocide, disease slavery and assimilation.”

Haswood and two other Democratic legislators testified before the House Federal and State Affairs Committee on behalf of the bill. No one testified in opposition to the legislation.

In addition to changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, the bill would strike the current Native American Day — celebrated on the fourth Saturday of September each year — from the calendar. It would maintain the first Wednesday of February as Native American Legislative Day at the Capitol.

The change from Columbus would remove painful iconography for Indigenous communities and replace it with their story of resiliency, Haswood said.

“Before Columbus, there were hundreds of distinct and separate nations and cultures living and thriving in the Americas,” said Rep. Stephanie Byers, D-Wichita and a member of the Chickasaw Nation. “It is time we honor those who were here before and whose descendants occupy offices within this very institution.”

Rep. Stephanie Byers, D-Wichita, said the change would encourage accurate historical education on Christopher Columbus. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector

Fourteen states currently observe Indigenous People’s Day, plus the District of Columbia and more than 130 cities across the country.

Lawrence and Wichita are among Kansas cities to formally authorize the celebration of Indigenous People’s Day.

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, said passing the bill would show an acknowledgment of our changing understanding of history. Although not federally recognized until 1934, Columbus Day celebrations began as early as 1872, Highberger said. That was more than 100 years before the first case to determine Native Americans to be persons under the law.

“When we began to celebrate Columbus Day, Native Americans weren’t persons or human beings under government law,” Highberger said. “Given the fact that our understanding has broadened and changed over the past 150 years that’s a good reason to revisit the holidays we celebrate.”

He noted that Columbus first landed in the Caribbean, not on land that is now considered the USA.

Rep. Paul Waggoner, R-Hutchinson, questioned if where Columbus landed was relevant to his status as a world-changing figure. Highberger said it was important to be historically accurate.

“The fact that he initiated a genocide that covered the entire North American, South American continent, I think is relevant,” Highberger said.