Activists rally in Baltimore to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day

About 50 people gathered by the statue of Christopher Columbus in the eastern Inner Harbor on Friday afternoon to demand that Baltimore and Maryland officials replace his annual eponymous October holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, honoring the native communities who were harmed by the European explorer’s voyages.

Protestors bearing signs with messages like “You Are On Native Land" and “Columbus did not ‘discover’ us!” listened and applauded as speakers advocated for the change. Indigenous Strong, an advocacy group representing Maryland’s tens of thousands of Native Americans, organized the rally to “re-energize efforts" to replace Columbus Day.


Indigenous Strong member Christine Duckworth-Oxendine said the group scheduled the rally for the day after Thanksgiving to recognize both the end of American Indian Heritage Month and the whitewashed history of the holiday. Historians have written that the oft-told story of Pilgrims and Native Americans feasting together in 17th-century Plymouth erases the Europeans’ later massacres of the Wampanoag people. The activists’ campaign seeks to fix misinformation and uplift indigenous groups’ resilience.

“We have rights, we have a voice and we don’t want to be forgotten,” Duckworth-Oxendine said. “We don’t want our young people to not know who they are, where they came from, and that they matter.”

The movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been growing in strength and size across the U.S., with over 100 cities, towns and counties making the change official. Columbus, who is credited with discovering the Americas for Europeans, is also linked to the start of the transatlantic slave trade, the spread of disease and violence against native populations. A bill to rebrand the holiday in Baltimore failed in 2016.

Duckworth-Oxendine said Friday’s rally is the first of several planned actions to encourage lawmakers to reconsider the change.

The rally’s indigenous attendees — who gave speeches and performed ceremonial music and dance — represent the myriad tribes whose members now live in Maryland. Aside from the state-recognized Piscataway and Accohannock tribes, greater Baltimore has many residents from the Lumbee, Cherokee, Haliwa-Saponi and other tribes with roots outside of contemporary Maryland. Duckworth-Oxendine is herself Lumbee, and her mother was one of thousands of Lumbee who migrated from the Carolinas to the Upper Fells Point area for opportunities in Baltimore’s post-World War II industrial sector.

Members of several of these tribes spoke to protestors about Native Americans’ shared trauma from the violence their ancestors suffered at the hands of European colonizers and their descendants. That violence affected generations of indigenous tribes and persists in the disproportionate poverty, health complications and lack of respect that they still experience, Kerry Hawk Lessard said.

“When a society repeatedly tells you that you are of no value, you come to no longer value yourself, and that creates a lot of health problems in our community,” said Lessard, who leads Native American Lifelines, a public health organization focused on the area’s indigenous community.

Three Indigenous Strong members also read aloud from a statement they delivered to Baltimore City Council on Nov. 18 that details Columbus’ documented abuses, including rape, sex trafficking, enslavement and dismemberment of indigenous people.

Most commemorations of Christopher Columbus originate in Italian-American communities that uplifted the Italian explorer’s work in response to discrimination against Italian immigrants. Baltimore’s statue sits adjacent to the city’s Little Italy neighborhood.

When someone placed a pair of severed hands around the statue in October, Marc DeSimone of the Italian American Civic Club of Maryland defended the explorer’s legacy.

“We admit that he’s a flawed hero ... in as much as all our heroes are flawed,” he said.

Lessard and other speakers, including jazz icon Cab Calloway’s grandson Peter C. Brooks (himself affiliated with the Piscataway-Conoy tribe), addressed the Italian-American opposition during their remarks.

“The Italians were slaves to the Etruscans,” Brooks said. “The Romans overthrew the Etruscans and later became the Italians. But if you go to Italy today, you don’t see anybody celebrating the Etruscans. ... So, by the same token, how can you expect us to celebrate being occupied?”

Baltimore Sun reporter Thalia Juarez contributed to this report.