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. 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

11 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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