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Indigenous Peoples Day Has a Longer History than You Thought

The state of Wisconsin officially adopted Indigenous Peoples Day in 2019 to add more context to the federally recognized Columbus Day. These images from the UW archives will help you take a step back in time with the members of Wunk Sheek and La Colectiva.

Esther Seidlitz
October 11, 2021
Members of Wunk Sheek beat drums at an anti-Columbus Day rally in 2000 on Library Mall

Members of Wunk Sheek beat drums at an anti-Columbus Day rally in 2000 on Library Mall.

The state of Wisconsin officially adopted Indigenous Peoples Day in 2019 to add more context to the federally recognized Columbus Day. Both holidays land on the second Monday of each October.

Many Indigenous people, social activists, and historians have continually argued that the celebration of Christopher Columbus and the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere results from and perpetuates a limited or one-sided understanding of history. Indigenous Peoples Day is meant to provide a deeper, more meaningful recognition of the history of the people who lived in this region thousands of years before Columbus set sail.

Though the official recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day is a relatively recent movement — you may not have even heard of it a few years ago — the push for this holiday is more than 50 years old. In 1977, leaders at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas first proposed the Indigenous Peoples Day switchover. Thirteen years later, South Dakota was the first state to rename Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day. Other states did not start following suit until decades later.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, UW–Madison students and professors protested Columbus Day celebrations and worked to get the state holiday changed to focus on Indigenous peoples. Wunk Sheek, an Indigenous student organization at UW–Madison, and La Colectiva Cultural de Aztlan, a Chican@ student group active in the 1990s, were the driving force behind these protests. The fruits of their labor were finally realized 30 years later. Today, Wisconsin is included in the list of 17 states that have either replaced Columbus Day entirely with Indigenous Peoples Day or adopted it as an additional holiday.

These images from the UW archives will help you take a step back in time with the members of Wunk Sheek and La Colectiva.

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A poster from the fall of 1990 advertises a concert with Orquesta Kalidad sponsored by the Multicultural Council and the Unión Puertorriqueña as an alternative celebration to Columbus Day.
A poster from the fall of 1990 advertises a concert with Orquesta Kalidad sponsored by the Multicultural Council and the Unión Puertorriqueña as an alternative celebration to Columbus Day.
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