Today is not Columbus Day: a history of Discoverers’ Day in Hawaii

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Picture courtesy of Island Pacific Academy.

The second Monday of October is, in fact, a day — but what day is it exactly? Is it Columbus Day? Discoverers’ Day? Indigenous Peoples’ Day? And is it a holiday or not? The answers to these questions are not immediately obvious, especially in Hawaii.

The first Columbus Day celebration took place on October 12th, 1792 in New York to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving in America. One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to celebrate the day by “ceasing from toil” and “appreciating the great achievements” of Columbus. It then became a national holiday in 1937 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and continues to be a day off for federal workers today.

Columbus Day was observed on October 12th until 1970, when it became switched to a floating holiday observed on the second Monday of October, as it remains today.

That same year was also the last time Hawaii would celebrate Columbus Day. In 1971, the state legislature changed it to Discoverers’ Day, “to honor all discoverers, including Pacific and Polynesian navigators.” Discoverers’ Day remained a state holiday in Hawaii until 1988. Since then, it has not been a state holiday.

Outside of Hawaii, however, a separate movement pushed to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as Christopher Columbus is also seen as a representation of violent colonization over indigenous people across the globe. A UN-sponsored conference in 1977 started the discussion about changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and in 1989, South Dakota became the first state to celebrate Native American Day instead of Columbus Day.

Now, hundreds of towns, cities and counties as well as Washington DC and several states — Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota Vermont, and Wisconsin among them — have switched from celebrating Columbus Day to celebrating something else in its stead, be it Native American Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or Discoverers’ Day.

In 2013, a bill was introduced in Hawaii’s legislature to re-designate Discoverer’s Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but it was pushed to the 2014 legislative session, where it never made it to the floor for a vote.

All that to say, whatever day the second Monday of October is and whether or not it’s a state holiday depends on where you are. In Hawaii it’s Discoverers’ Day, and unless you work for the government, you still have to clock in.

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