Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
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. 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
Indigenous Peoples’ Day
History and True Facts about Christopher Columbus
History and Facts About Columbus Day
Indigenous movements in the Americas
In elementary school they made Christopher Columbus seem like a saint. The older I got the more my teachers would say that wasn’t true and that there was more to the story.
I think that Columbus Day is stupid and should not be celebrated with that name. I think that it clouds the truth. If it is here to stay, which it probably is, then it should be named something else. We have Indigenous People’s Day, so maybe another holiday to celebrate them. We have plenty of holidays that cater towards white people, it’s time that we be more inclusive and have better holidays for better reasons.
I personally think that Columbus Day should be re-established as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, though I also do agree that does not mean omitting instruction on Christopher Columbus and other explorers. I think that it is important for students to learn about how parts of the New World were founded, but I think too often we sugarcoat explorers’ ventures and not talk about the effects on indigenous people. It was not until I was in middle school that I learned Christopher Columbus was not all sunshines and rainbows, and even then I had learned about it from an online resource and had to ask my teacher about it for them to address it. Too often, not only in the case of Christopher Columbus, we talk about native people as though they were animals that were tamed when Europeans arrived in the New World. When we do that, not only are are spreading misinformation, but we are disrespecting entire cultures, heritages, and groups of people who were destroyed by the arrival of Europeans like Christopher Columbus.
Columbus Day has been on the calendar for so long and I really don’t see it going anywhere anytime soon. Because of this, it should be discussed in the classroom because it stills holds significant historical events and impacts on the discoveries of the world. I do agree with the articles that the perspective that is given in schools tends to be more in the view of him being a great historical hero who we must know in order to understand how America was founded. I personally have always thought it was a bit, dare I use the word shady, that schools weren’t thoroughly addressing the issue of Native Americans first inhabiting North America and the results of Columbus coming over led to the slaughter and near extinction of Natives. As historians and teachers, we need to understand all view points of historical events without any bias or misconstrues towards the subject. I aim to strive as an educator that gives all the facts to my students and avoid any misconceptions. I take personal reasoning on this topic in general because my dad’s side of the family came over during the time before the thirteen colonies, while my mother’s side was all Native Americans. Because of this, my mother always tried to teacher my sister and I the importance of the Indigenous people that settled long before Columbus came over.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.