Lawmaker proposing renaming Columbus Day to honor explorers

While the Salt Lake City Council is considering renaming Columbus Day as “Indigenous People’s Day,” a Utah lawmaker is proposing a change to the holiday he says will remove the rancor from the topic while still honoring an important aspect of the nation’s heritage.

Many communities are ditching the Columbus Day holiday, which was established in 1792 to honor Italian American heritage but has become more controversial in recent years as Native American groups consider him responsible for the genocide of millions of people.

Republican Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, has opened a bill file for next year to rename Columbus Day as “Exploration Day.” Winder says changing the name of the holiday is appropriate because of Columbus’ sordid history. Instead, Winder wants to accentuate the positive aspects of the holiday.

“Rather than celebrating the actions and achievements of an imperfect man, let’s broaden the celebration to incorporate the great American spirit of discovery and exploration!” says Winder. “Celebrate Columbus if you’d like, or Leif Erikson, De Soto, Lewis & Clark, Sacajawea, Fathers Escalante and Dominguez, Amelia Earhart, Matthew Henson and Robert Peary, Neil Armstrong or Sally Ride. Celebrate Native Americans who crossed the Bering Strait or sailed to these shores long before any European.”

Winder notes that Hawaii has already done something similar, renaming Columbus Day as Discoverer’s Day in honor of the Polynesian’s who discovered those islands.

In 2016 there were 26 cities across the nation which had dumped Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous People’s Day. 

Last year, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, unsuccessfully tried to pass a resolution to adopt Indigenous People’s Day. Winder says his approach honors Native Americans without disregarding the impact explorers had on building America.

“As much as I love and respect the Native Americans of Utah, and acknowledge that their ancestors were here long before any European, I don’t like completely discounting the good that came from Columbus and other explorers, and I don’t like giving any ethnic group their own holiday,” said Winder.

Winder acknowledges his idea is not an original one. There have been efforts to change Columbus Day to Exploration Day since 2012.

If Winder’s proposal passes next year, he hopes Utah schools would take advantage of the new holiday as a teaching opportunity.

“I imagine school kids doing history projects to celebrate the wide variety of explorers in our nation’s history,” said Winder. “Exploration has fueled the American imagination and progress since long before and after 1492, and it is time we broaden our celebration of Columbus Day to encompass this potential.”

Winder’s proposal is co-sponsored by Sen. Diedre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork.