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 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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