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

10 Comments

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

Comments are closed.