Joe Biden has become the first United States president to formally mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day, affirming his administration’s commitment to upholding tribal sovereignty and respecting human rights.
In a proclamation on Friday, Biden said Indigenous Peoples’ Day would be marked on October 11 – the same date Columbus Day is observed.
“Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society,” Biden’s statement reads.
“We also recommit to supporting a new, brighter future of promise and equity for Tribal Nations – a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and respect for the human rights of Indigenous people in the Americas and around the world.”
Several statues of Christopher Columbus, the Italian navigator whose Spanish-funded expeditions from the 1490s onward opened the way for the European conquest of the Americas, have been removed from US cities in recent years amid a reckoning with his legacy.
That comes amid a global push to take down statues and monuments to historical figures involved in colonialism and other abuses, including slavery. Such monuments have been toppled by protesters or removed in Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom, among other places.
Back in the US, many Italian Americans view Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage, while Indigenous peoples have called for the day to be abolished and for an honest assessment of the harms the Italian explorer caused for their communities.
As of last year, 14 US states and more than 130 cities were observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day across the country, the Smithsonian’s, National Museum of the American Indian said in a blog post.
Biden also issued a proclamation on Friday for Columbus Day, praising the role of Italian Americans in US society while also referencing the violence and harm Columbus and other explorers of the age brought about on the Americas.
“Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities,” Biden wrote.
“It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past – that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.”
The statements mark a sharp contrast from Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, who in his Columbus Day proclamation last year defended Columbus from what he said were “radical activists” seeking to undermine the explorer’s “legacy”.
Earlier this year, Biden appointed to the post of interior secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and the first Indigenous person to head a cabinet agency in US history.
Indigenous advocates have welcomed some steps taken by the Biden administration to rollback some of Trump policies that they feared would impact their rights and harm their way of life, such as oil and gas drilling leases in an Arctic refuge.
On Thursday, Biden announced he would restore the boundaries of three US nature reserves, known as national monuments, that were reduced in size by Trump to allow commercial activity.
The restoration will protect more than 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) in Southern Utah known as the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, as well as the nearly 8,000sq km (3,100sq miles) Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New England.
“By taking this action, President Biden will be recognizing the deep and enduring ancestral and cultural connections that Tribes have to this landscape and taking a step toward honoring his commitment to Indigenous People by acknowledging their original place in this country that is now our shared home,” the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition said in a statement.