Indigenous Peoples’ Day Versus Columbus Day: What is all of the Fuss About?

US cities and states are increasingly renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day (Credit: Kotatv.com)

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction
We recently celebrated Columbus Day, and for many people in the US it amounts to a bank holiday and the closing of some other government agencies. Columbus Day has been celebrated in the US since 1792. But the question has been increasingly asked, should we as a nation continue to celebrate Columbus Day? There is a growing group of voices that argue we should not be celebrating Christopher Columbus’ “discovery of America.” When I was in elementary and middle school, I remember my teachers speaking of Christopher Columbus as great explorer and hero. Did he deserve that kind of recognition? Some would argue in the negative. As a former classroom teacher and now college professor I do teach about Christopher Columbus’ important role in history but I would like to believe that I tell the “whole story.” 

Background on Columbus
What did Columbus do that was so important that it caused cities, countries, bodies of water,  and a holiday to be named after him? Christopher Columbus –who was well read in geography, history and astronomy, completed four important voyages across the Atlantic Ocean under sponsorship by the Catholic Monarchs of Castile and Aragon. While pursuing a route to the Far East, he discovered a viable sailing route to the Americas (Which he mistakenly called the East Indies). The route he found was then unknown to the Old World. Furthermore, Columbus led the first European expeditions to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. The work he did and his travels initiated the opening of the “New World for conquest and settlement by the Europeans and the permanent European colonization of the Americas.” He was quite a successful explorer; his expeditions inaugurated a period of exploration, conquest, and colonization that lasted for centuries, helping create the modern Western world. Or put another way, he initiated the legacy of imperialism, colonialism and conquest of black and brown people groups that would be indicative of Europeans for centuries to come. He is infamously known for committing atrocities against the Native people in North America. Furthermore, he played a key role in the extinction of the Taíno people and promoted and advocated slavery (enslaving many of the Natives he encountered), which brings us to the discussion about Indigenous People’s Day.

What is Indigenous Peoples’ Day?
Indigenous Peoples’ Day began in 1989 as a holiday to counter or protest Columbus Day. It is celebrated in the US on the second Monday in October. The idea is that Columbus should not be celebrated but exposed for his atrocities against indigenous people. Today the holiday honors and pays tribute to the history and culture of indigenous people  in North and South America who were settled in the Americas long before European settlers. The premise of the holiday is to reject the celebration of Columbus and the holiday as it is indicative of “the violent history of the colonization in the Western Hemisphere.”

Discussing Columbus Day and/or Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the Classroom
It is important that educators not omit discussions about Christopher Columbus in their classroom. It is also important to be intellectually honest when teaching history. That is we should discuss history and culture from a relatively objective point (As much as objectivity can be achieved). Teachers should not only share the negative aspects of Christopher Columbus and earlier European explorers, but also honestly discuss contributions that he made. At the same time, much of the real stories have been omitted in social studies classroom discussions. This,it is important that this is corrected and that we share with students what really happened. The Indigenous Peoples’ Movement is a really great place to start with this conversation. Below we share articles, resources and lesson plans that can help teachers get more grounded on this topic and infuse this conversation into their curriculum.

Activities, Articles and Lessons
Reconsider Columbus Day
Honoring Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the Classroom
Indigenous Peoples’ Day Resources
Indigenous Peoples Day 2018- Teaching Tolerance
Lesson Plan: Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day?
Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day?
Indigenous Peoples’ Day | All About the Holidays
Indigenous People’s Day Curriculum Night
Indigenous People’s Day Curriculum Teach-In

References
Indigenous Peoples’ Day
History and True Facts about Christopher Columbus
History and Facts About Columbus Day
Indigenous movements in the Americas

36 Comments

  1. Christopher Columbus Day will most likely always stay on our calendar; therefore I believe that we should continue to talk about it. I love the way this post talks about teaching students and honoring him, but also exposing him. We simply cannot omit Christopher Columbus from our curriculum, but I believe we should talk about with students some of the negative aspects to his story. Like any history subject, nothing is perfect. Along with talking about Christopher Columbus Day the conversation of Indigenous People’s Day should also be brought up.

    • Ever since I’ve been in school, I’ve only been taught the good things about Christopher Columbus. With history, it’s important to remember there are always two sides. I like the way you broke down this article because we get to read Columbus in the light most of us see him as, but then you provide the details that make us see the Indigenous people’s perspective. Although I think teachers will talk about Christopher Columbus the way they are used to, I hope they give the other side of the story to bring awareness of the obstacles Native Americans faced because of him. I believe it’s awesome to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day because they were here first, and we should at least respect and pay tribute to that.

  2. Christopher Columbus is known for basically just finding another piece of land for the colonist to invade and take conquer new land although didn’t had only gone to the Americas mistakenly. We should not completely take Christopher Columbus out of our class room teachings in elementary school, because he was a part of somewhat finding our country. But We could also teach both side of the story in school instead of just learning about the successors story.

  3. When I was going through the school system, I only heard good things about Christopher Columbus. I do think it is important to talk about Christopher Columbus because he did open the door for colonialism, which is how our country was founded. But like stated, we also need to expose the real truth. We as a society should not forget the indigenous people who suffered at the hands of Christopher Columbus and the events that followed him “discovering” new territory. This was their home that we took at ease, which ultimately lead to their death and even extinction in some cases, and that is not fair.

  4. I honestly think I would argue that this is the best article I have ever read on Columbus / Indegonus peoples day. I think it is extremely important that children know and recognize that there were people here before Columbus, they should know the cultures, customs, religions and languages of these people. Children should know how much culture and how many people were lost due to the European settlers and know why that occurred. I feel like the American education is severely lacking in this department, and while some could argue it is because of the tremendous loss of culture and people and we simply don’t have teachable content, I think it is much deeper and includes the forced assimilation and honestly just blatant racism as well. I also think it is important that students know that Columbus was far from the first person from a different continent to come here and should know the disease and horrific actions he participated in once he did get here. And despite all this I don’t think we should stop acknowledging the accomplishments of Columbus and how it truly lead the way to the countries that currently exist here. Most people are too interested in a black and white, right or wrong version of history and yet we must look at all sides and erasing significant but bad people from our history will never be good, but rather prevent us from preventing these things from happening again. I love the way you teach every aspect of this day, the good, the bad, and the forgotten it is so important that children learn a multifaceted history that they can truly learn from rather than simply being told half truths or none at all just to make western Europe and U.S look better, this is something I would hope to learn from for my classroom and be able to utilize as an English when discussing things like controversial literature.

  5. This is an important topic to discuss in the classrooms. I remember learning about Christopher Columbus in elementary school as the first individual to discover America. This is an example of many falsities in the classroom. We are taught these things at a young age. In reality, he killed many and paraded their body around streets. He did make successful voyages, but he never made it to North America and some of the history we are learning in classrooms is wrong. I was never taught about how he enslaved indigenous people in elementary school. This is just another example of how the United States history is in some cases, being erased or forgotten. It’s important to not only teach Christopher Columbus but also teach Indigenous People’s day.

  6. I think that the subject of Columbus Day is a difficult one to tackle. On one hand, I agree that we should be celebrating all the indigenous people that were here before Columbus and the Europeans arrival. On the other hand, the voyages of Christopher Columbus should also be noted and recognized for the great changes they brought about to the world. While many atrocities were committed, both by Columbus and the people that followed him, it is important to remember that the world was different afterwards. It is probably why we don’t celebrate the Vikings who came before them, the world was fundamentally changed after Columbus. I think that in and of itself is something to be thought about as well, not just the negatives. History and Social Studies is about looking at the whole story, not just one part of it.

  7. I tend to end up agreeing with a previous commentor here about how he shouldn’t be completely erased from history, but he should also not be seen as a hero or as if he was the first person to discover America. On/around the calendar day of Christopher Columbus day, we could talk in classrooms about why it was previously thought they he did what he did in order to get a day for his remembrance, but then move the conversation to what his actual actions were. In that way, we are allowing for multiple perspectives on history. We are not erasing the way that Columbus saw the events, but we are bringing to light the more realistic history of what took place and the point of view of the events from the Natives he interacted with.

  8. One of the things i love most about living in 2019 is that people look at the legacy of historical figure in its entire entirety and not just their most recognizable accomplishment. Christopher Columbus advocated and promoted slavery and violence as well as genocide of more than one group of people. Does discovering what we now call the Americas outweigh the lives he facilitated to enslave and the bloodshed by natives throughout the world? not to me. Many would argue that he is worth the recognition, and even many would go as far as claiming that he wasn’t even the first to discover the Americas.

  9. I think that it is important to remember Christopher Columbus and his discoveries but, as you said in the beginning of this article, we should tell the whole story. This way we are remembering the discoveries that he made, as well as the horrid things he did. It is important that we celebrate Indigenous People’s day because the people who are native to America have been taken advantage of and stripped of their land. We need to remember the people that were here before us, and suffered because of Columbus. Yes he is a well known explorer who made grand discoveries, but he is also a man that promoted slavery and decimated the native people who were here before us.

  10. The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, aiming to seek out a western sea route to China and India, instead landed on a small island in the modern-day Bahamas. His arrival led him to being credited for “discovering” the Americas and ’til this day, he is celebrated with ceremonies and parades in many U.S. states. My argument is that Columbus could not have discovered a land that had already been inhabited by Native American. I also argue that while his mission claimed to be a scientific voyage of discovery, it rather ended up being one geared to the colonization and the deaths of thousands of Native Americans. And to those that survived the death sentence, their fate was being enslaved and having their land taken away from them. I think that while Columbus was skilled and well read on geography and astronomy, the history of atrocities he led to be committed are not talked about enough and taught in classrooms. Which is why I am a firm believer of changing the holiday’s name- but only if Native Americans are willing to accept it.

  11. I have been taught about Christopher Columbus’s great contributions to America at a young age. I was not given the whole story. It was integrated into my mind that Christopher Columbus found the Americas and is responsible for the United States as we know it. I was not told until 8th grade the true story of Christopher Columbus. Although I do believe he made great contributions to the Americas, I do not believe it was more then what other important figures, such as George Washington have done. In society today we make a holiday out of every day, therefore Columbus Day often goes without notice. I personally do not mind this because I do feel he is important, but he does not necessary deserve his own day of the year, as I’m sure the Native Americans he made slaves would agree as well.

  12. I think this article is really important to address. Christopher Columbus Day was always recognized at my school especially in elementary. He accomplished many great things in the early times of our history, but there are also many things schools do not talk about that he did. We never learned about Indigenous Peoples’ Day or really recognized them on our land before the Europeans. Christopher Columbus was a great explorer, but also caused many tragedies for the Native Americans. When teaching it in a social studies classroom, it’s very important to discuss both sides of the story. Although Columbus made many important discoveries, it’s important to bring the attention on some things he did, like promoting slavery of the Natives.

  13. When I was in school, my textbook painted Christopher Columbus as a hero, and so did my social studies teacher. As a child, I believed everything in my textbook was fact and I didn’t hear the real story until much later. I wholeheartedly support the indigenous people’s day movement and I think it is very important for teachers to tell both sides of the story. I also think it is important for teachers to tell both sides of every story in history. Students should know more than one narrative or they aren’t learning much about history at all (there is rarely ever only one side to the story). It is not wrong to recognize how important Christopher Columbus’ work was to the creation of western civilization, but schools can not continue to overlook all of the cruelty that was dealt to indigenous people. I feel that leaving out the other side of the story is wrong and that it is critical for students to learn about multiple perspectives when they learn about historical events.

  14. These are the kind of topics which make people wildly uncomfortable, and therefor need to be spoken about all the more. We all grow up under the impression that Christopher Columbus was a hero, but are shocked to have the truth slammed into us as we grow. It is so important to fight to break this cycle. To stop hiding pieces of American history simply because we were not necessarily proud of our actions. Instead, let us learn from them, study them, analyze them in order to grow. The mistakes we make in life are not there to haunt us forever, they are there that we can grow from them. And I believe those same ideas should be applied to how we go about teaching our history.

  15. Over the past few years, I have started to hear more debates from teachers about what should be taught regarding Columbus. I agree with the information in the article that is important to be upfront and honest with students about history. Don’t only share the negative parts, but also share the good things Columbus did with your students. I think like many of parts history there are always two (or more) points of view, and it is important to give your students the most real and honest version you can.

  16. Awesome topic. Christopher Columbus can be both celebrated and criticized for his contributions in history. While I think it is just to celebrate his contribution in initiating colonization and modern imperialism, it is not just to leave portions of the story out, like many history books have. It was not until high school did my teachers and history books teach about the atrocities committed by Columbus, only that he sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered America.

    WE, as teachers and historians, cannot ignore these facts and we cannot omit teaching Columbus because of these facts. It is important to recognize the truth in history and it is as important to teach the truth in history. Columbus and indigenous people deserve a place because of their contributions but also because of their relationship.

  17. The interesting thing about Indigenous Peoples’ Day is that it’s still not recognized by a majority of Americans I come into contact with. This could be due to a lack of awareness. I agree with the article when it mentioned that we as teachers should raise awareness to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It is also to be noted that we shouldn’t completely discredit Christopher Columbus; though his actions where horrible, his accomplishments can’t be denied.

  18. I don’t think we can simply ignore Columbus Day as a whole because it is a big day in our country’s history. I do believe that Christopher Columbus should not be given all the glory. Growing up all I ever heard were great things about Columbus when acuatily he was a really terrible guy. Because its such a monumental day in our history I think we should recognize but call it nothing different. Indigenous People day should be more wildly talked about and appreciated because they are a big part of our history too. They were also the people who suffered for Columbus discovering the US and they helped colonists a lot along the way.

  19. It wasn’t until high school that I heard about what Christopher Columbus actually did when he discovered America and that he wasn’t the hero that everyone thought he was. I also didn’t know about Indigenous People day until recently. Taking both holidays into consideration, I think that both holidays are important but I think that Columbus Day should be treated differently than it is today. I think that it should become a topic for discussion on how America was discovered and the atrocities that came with the discovery of America. It’s important that students know about the true story of Christopher Columbus.

  20. I think the most important part of this post is how we present this information in the classroom. In order to do this fairly and factually for our students, we need to use the proper sociological lens. Don’t label actions as negative or contributions; present the info to the students. A better question than how we should label what Columbus did is why are we teaching from when he entered the Americas? Why have the students not been presented with the history of the local people before Columbus landed? A non-Eurocentric viewpoint would allow the native peoples to be seen as people and not just set pieces to Columbus’ story. If we are presenting these ideas to students, we need to stop oversimplifying them. Just like the first Thanksgiving, if we present it then we better be presenting the objective ideas but gauged to the appropriateness of their age. It’s like we have faith that a teacher down the road will tell the “true story”, but that is just passing our responsibility to our students to someone else. What happens when that student never meets the teacher who can correct these falsehoods, or what if by that time the students are so set in these ideas that they won’t listen?

  21. Before reading this article I only knew the positives and accomplishments of Christopher Columbus, because that is what I had been taught. Knowing that there is another side to Columbus and his life is very important, I believe it is crucial for students to be able to form their own opinions on topics and history based on the information they have been given. In order for students to full understand a person, event, or history lesson, different points of view and factual information needs to be provided. I believe that all students have the right to know the negatives just as much as the positives, because it is a way of truly learning events that took place. With that being said I do not believe that Columbus Day is going to be taken off our calendars or celebrations anytime soon. Yet, I do believe that if Columbus Day is going to be celebrated, learned about, etc. that the other end such as Indigenous Day and the history behind that day should also be discussed. Different view points are important when trying to learn history concepts.

  22. I have enjoyed reading about Columbus Day vs. Indigenous Peoples day. I had no idea that Columbus Day had been celebrated for so long. Once I learned in elementary school that Amerigo Vespucci was the one to discover the area that became America, I didn’t understand why we celebrated Columbus. Now that I know the atrocities that Columbus committed, it makes even less sense to me. Instead I believe that we as educators need to tell both sides of Columbus’ story in as objective a manner as possible so that students truly learn and can decide for themselves.

  23. Until this year, I had never really heard negativity surround Columbus Day. I agree that we should still discuss his contributions but also not be afraid to discuss the things that weren’t good. That’s with many things in History. I think we are sometimes afraid to talk about things that were very negative. There are many events that occurred in American History that we are afraid to talk about because it portrays our country in a bad light. For example, the treatment of African Americans and segregation in our country. It’s important to honestly tell our students about people and events in History.

  24. I found this article to be very interesting and though provoking. I remember back in elementary school I did learn about Christopher Columbus and how he “discovered” America. However, I have noticed that as I have gotten older in my own classes as well as the classes I have observed they don’t talk about him as much or make him out to be as much of a hero as he used to be. I agree that at this point, Columbus Day really isn’t anything more than a holiday to people. I know that I am just grateful that I finally have a day off to get some much needed rest and don’t think about what the holiday is supposed to be about. I do like the idea of teaching about Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I think that no matter what is done there will be people that are unhappy with the decision that is made. I think that teacher should teach about both because Columbus did introduce America to Europe but he didn’t discover it since other people were already here.

  25. When I was in elementary school, I only ever heard good things about christopher columbus. Not until I was in high school, did educators start speaking the truth about him, how he was just a theift and a murderer. Until I read this article, I didn’t even know Indigenous Peoples’ Day existed. I believe I didn’t know what it was because this is a topic that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, because of the negatives Columbus has done. We need to acknowledge the negatives, but we also cannot ignore the achievements he has made.

  26. Every since I was little I was always taught about Columbus Day and the meaning of the holiday. I was especially told only good things about Christopher Columbus. I think teaching more kids/people about Indigenous peoples’ day would show we support all views and cultures as an education system. I think we don’t teach about Indigenous peoples’ day because us as a society do not like to feel uncomfortable or offended people therefore if we just “pretend” as if it doesn’t exist then we don’t need to teach it. Since Columbus Day will more than likely stay a holiday and on our calendars I think we should keep teaching about it AND Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

  27. I completely agree that we need to educate our students about both. Christopher Columbus did do some terrible things but he also achieved some great things like introducing the Americas to European countries. I think when talking about the holiday that indigenous peoples day is a great way to pay respect to those people and to bring attention to the bad things that Christopher Columbus did as well. I think that we should have a day to celebrate both because the bad things Christopher Columbus did should be remembered so that people know what happened to the indigenous people but I also think the bad he did doesn’t negate the good he did as well.

  28. I was also taught the, what I like to call, ‘white-washed’ version of Columbus’ journey. I was taught that he was a hero, and loved the Peanuts “It’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” growing up. Though at the time I found nothing wrong with how it was being taught, as I’ve learned the truth about the discovery of America I believe this history should be framed and taught in different ways that align more accurately with the truth. While I don’t believe his story should be erased from classrooms, it should be paired with the discussion of the way he treated indigenous people and how his ‘discovery’ affected their culture and their futures.

  29. I personally think Cristopher Columbus is overrated, and I’ve thought that for a long time. He did make very important voyages, and the era of discovering the Americas is important to talk about in history class, but I do think having an entire holiday for him is necessary. Also, I don’t think we need to give him all the credit. Viking also discovered America long before Christopher Columbus, and probably so did other groups of travelers. What he did to the people who lived here already is tragic, and because of that I do not think he needs to be celebrated the way he his. Remembered yes, but not celebrated.

  30. I definitely agree that the history of Christopher Columbus should be discussed in the classroom. It was a major topic in the history classes I took in grade school and I would like to give my students the same experience. There are so many contributions Columbus made to the start of America and I believe it is the foundation of our nation. Students deserve to have the opportunity to know the stories that formed the US into what it is today, even if the stories have negative respects. America has been through trials and rough patches that has shaped our culture.

  31. It is always interesting to realize that a holiday I grew up celebrating was in fact misconstrued for many years. I strongly believe that teaching the truth about Christopher Columbus and shifting the focus onto the indigenous people he encountered will help provide students, our future citizens, with the ability to discern on other historical events. Although, Columbus’ actions are notable, he is not the hero we have made him out to be. This thought alone can open up a discussion that ties into our present day society and how we often show our “highlights” and discourage the reality.

  32. I feel like teaching this controversy could be a really interesting opinion writing opportunity! Showing both sides of the coin in a little research and debate style presentation of the ideas, followed up by students writing what holiday they will celebrate that weekend and why thy choose this. It could be really interesting and also very eye-opening at a young age!
    I think approaching this with care is vital though. Sending home a booklet or flyer abut “The Real Story of Columbus Day” to parents could make them aware of the upcoming discussion about the holiday. This could also carry over to Thanksgiving and other holidays. But bringing the discussion and learning home is so encouraging and engaging for the students, while supportive and caring for the families.

  33. Growing up through elementary school, the only conversations I ever had around Christopher Columbus painted him in a positive, or even heroic light. It wasn’t until college that I learned the gruesome truth behind Columbus’ expeditions. This seems to be a common theme among a majority of elementary classrooms. It can be kind of difficult to unlearn everything you thought you knew about a certain subject, and that is exactly why it’s so important that we teach our younger students an unbiased perspective about Christopher Columbus. It’s true that we can’t just erase the contributions that he did make, and it is impossible to talk about the history of our country without bringing him up. However, it is very important that we include in those history lessons the fact that Columbus was also mortally cruel to many different groups of people and set off a trend of the European treatment of people of color.

  34. I believe we should get rid of the holiday entirely but I’m not opposed to talking about Christopher Columbus because he was very important figure in the Age of Exploration. I think as social studies teachers it is are job to tell it like it is and give an honest telling of history regardless of how ugly it can be.  As I’ve grown older I’ve started to realize more  and more that the history I learned in school was not always a complete telling of what really happened and it will be a goal of mine to change this for the students that I will hopefully teach one day.

  35. This article really gave great insight to the difference of Columbus Day and Indigenous people day. I too remember learning early on in Social Studies that Columbus was this great explorer, never learning anything about some of the negative things he was a part of. As I got older I started to learn more about his participation in these things. Honestly until I read this article I did not know what the point of Indigenous people day was. Now that I know I think it is a great way to shine light on a big misconception that has been taught to many Social Studies students. I completely agree with the point that objectivity has to be used when teaching history to students. As a future educator I will strive to be as objective as I can in my teaching.

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