In South Dakota, It’s Native American Day, Not Columbus Day

Today, we honor great Native American leaders – not the other guy.

For decades, the United States has celebrated the second Monday of October as a federal holiday, an “annual reaffirmation by the American people of their faith in the future, a declaration of willingness to face with confidence the imponderables of unknown tomorrows,” according to a Senate report in 1968, the year Congress made Columbus Day a federal affair.

But in South Dakota, we are recognizing a different holiday: Native American Day.

South Dakota’s designation of Native American Day stems back to a decision by Gov. George Mickelson in the late 1980s to seek "reconciliation” between Native Americans and whites after historically bad relations. Mickelson asked the Legislature to declare 1990 a “Year of Reconciliation” and to rename Columbus Day as Native American Day. The measure passed unanimously.

candi brings plenty at a protest

South Dakota is not alone. Over a dozen states and more than 130 local governments have chosen to not celebrate Columbus Day altogether or replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

Efforts to ditch Columbus Day continues to grow, thanks to the famed navigator’s increasingly problematic historical reputation. In 2021, President Biden issued the first presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

While Christopher Columbus has been immortalized for “discovering” the New World, the term generally used to refer to the modern-day Americas, Columbus thought he’d arrived in India and named the people he found already living here “Indians.”

The name, of course, stuck. But more problematic than this misidentification was the European settlers that followed. Native Americans were first pushed out of the East and later the West. Through a series of notorious atrocities, including the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee, the United States adopted an official expansionist policy of discriminating against Native Americans in favor of encouraging white settlers in their territories. This policy led to the subjugation, oppression, and death of many Native Americans. The effects are still being felt by Native Americans.

Through honoring the history and culture of Native Americans today and every day, the ACLU of South Dakota works to recognize the dishonor in our past and help to remedy the discrimination against Native Americans today.

Indigenous Justice work at the ACLU seeks to support and advance tribal sovereignty through culturally authentic and Indigenous-centered legal, policy, advocacy, and organizing work designed to dismantle colonial systems of oppression. We strive to honor and, when possible, integrate Indigenous worldviews and values into our approaches and strategies. 

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Over the years, the ACLU has filed important lawsuits challenging discrimination against Native American families in education, voting, and the child welfare system. Most recently, the Supreme Court issued a landmark victory for tribal sovereignty by rejecting all the constitutional challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in Brackeen v. Haaland, requiring state courts to make active efforts to protect Native children and keep Native families together. Congress passed ICWA in 1978 to address the nationwide crisis of state child welfare agencies tearing Native children from their families and placing them in non-Native homes, in an attempt to force Native children to assimilate and adopt white cultural norms.

Since 1978, 14 states have passed their own state ICWA laws to strengthen the implementation of all aspects of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Now that the Supreme Court has reaffirmed ICWA, it is time for states to take action and pass their own state laws building on the protections in the federal law. The map below shows where states have already enacted such state laws.

Along with essential procedural protections, the federal ICWA created a placement preference to promote the stability and security of Native American tribes and families. For any adoption of a Native child under state law, preference must be given to placements with: (1) a member of the child’s extended family; (2) other members of the Native child’s tribe; or (3) families from other Native American tribes. The majority of state ICWA laws incorporate identical or near-identical placement preference language as the federal ICWA, with a few exceptions. For example, some states prioritize placements with families of other Native American tribes that are of similar cultures to the Native child, while other states create a fourth preference for non-Native families that are committed to maintaining the child’s connection to their tribe and culture.