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From Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day

By grappling with the question of who we celebrate, and why, history teachers can help students navigate the complexities of the past
antique bronze compass, with blurry antique map in the background

Note: This story is an updated version of a piece, co-written with Leah Shafer, that was originally published in 2017.

Once upon a time, teachers celebrated Columbus Day by leading children in choruses of song about the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. If the commemorations dealt at all with the impact of European exploration on the Indigenous civilizations already flourishing in these “discovered” lands, it was often fleeting. 

In recent years, the conversation has become much more nuanced, as schools and communities have begun to mark Indigenous Peoples Day and to look more deeply at the complexities and problems of “celebrating” Christopher Columbus — including the violent abuse of Indigenous peoples, the launch of the transatlantic slave trade, and the introduction of lethal diseases to an unprepared continent.

Refocusing the Columbus Day holiday to center the people whose lives and cultures were irreparably damaged by colonial conquest is part of an ongoing reckoning, one in which the country is grappling with the complicated fullness of its history. 

We asked Eric Soto-Shed, a veteran history teacher and a lecturer and teacher educator at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to share perspectives on the changing currents around Indigenous Peoples Day and the challenges of learning and teaching history, as distinct from celebrating it. 

The context around Indigenous Peoples Day and Columbus Day:

I’ve noticed several developments in my work teaching high school and teaching at Harvard:

  1. The trend toward questioning Columbus Day has expanded. More schools, cities, and institutions, such as the Harvard Graduate School of Education, have adopted Indigenous Peoples Day instead. I think that’s part of a larger push nationwide to look critically at our past.
  2. Even as the topic is still contested, more students are aware of the problematic nature of Columbus — which again speaks to the larger trends in our country of critically examining the past. But in critiquing Columbus, we should not dismiss his significance. We need students to understand that Columbus is important, even if he isn’t someone to be celebrated.
  3. Indigenous Peoples Day offers a powerful way to think about U.S. history — but studying Indigenous people shouldn’t be contained to just this time of year.

"We need students to be able to critique the narrative of Columbus as hero, but also understand that Columbus is a significant figure who initiated a turning point in our history."

Teaching Indigenous histories and cultures:

Columbus did not “discover America,” but his voyages began the Columbian exchange, a turning point in world history involving the massive transfers of human populations, cultures, ideas, animals, plants, and diseases. Turning points are powerful lenses through which students need to view our past.

So when looking at U.S. history, we need to look back before 1776 and before 1492. The history of America starts with people who were here before Columbus. This wider lens provides an opportunity for educators to begin to take seriously the notion of indigeneity – originating naturally in a particular place – and Indigenous people prior to Columbus and prior to 1776.

But don’t wait for Indigenous Peoples Day to start bringing the political and cultural history and current affairs of Indigenous societies into your history class. This should be centered in your class and curriculum from the start, as a powerful way to approach U.S. history.

Making Indigenous people present — learning about their presence in culture, literature, politics, and across society — is a key part of the teaching of Indigenous history. Educators can counter the historic erasure of Indigenous people by bringing that presence forward. 

Approaches to controversies around Columbus Day — and why they matter:

Understanding controversies — what Columbus did, whether we should be commemorating him, how Eurpean exploration affected Indigenous people — builds skills that are fundamental for understanding history and social studies.

  • It involves really unpacking the past, looking for complications, and making a deep exploration into the people that made history happen, rather than just looking for a glossy overview.
  • It requires looking at dominant narratives and counternarratives. Dominant narratives tend to speak about heroes in a simple sense; counternarratives can be much more critical.
  • It involves grappling with multiple perspectives, a fundamental skill for historians. And those multiple viewpoints may help engage students who might feel otherwise unrepresented in a history class, such as females and students of color.
  • As Columbus Day continues to be contested, the conversations can also help students see that history is still applicable today. Right now, across the country, cities and schools are faced with questions about teaching about race and justice in America, questions about commemorating the Civil War or the Confederacy, and movements to bring marginalized voices into the center of our history. Historical knowledge helps students create an argument to answer those questions.

Talking about Indigenous history and about Columbus is part of our work to prepare students to be citizens. As a citizen, you need to be able to critically engage and reflect in a discourse around the public celebration and honoring of historical events and figures. You need to be able to deeply understand the profoundly problematic past of this great nation. 

I think history teachers have a responsibility to prepare students to comment critically and participate critically in the discourse about who we are honoring, who we are celebrating, and how we are doing it. Because that’s public history. We all own it. We need to own it.

"Don’t wait for Indigenous Peoples Day to start bringing the political and cultural history and current affairs of Indigenous societies into your history class. This should be centered in your class and curriculum from the start, as a powerful way to approach U.S. history."

Teaching about the legacy of Columbus accurately and age-appropriately:

I don’t think students are ever too young. We don’t want to expose young kids to graphic accounts of brutal treatment of Native Americans, but I think you want them to begin to question: What did this person do? Why is he important? Why are we celebrating him? How could we look at this from a different perspective?

Based on my experience, I think it’s vitally essential that teachers engage kids as young as sixth grade in questions that really interrogate Columbus. Students need to grapple with these multiple perspectives in history and the not-so-pleasant aspects of our past. And it’s fundamentally important that they do so.

Student activities that can help:

  • Engage students in a structured academic controversy, in which they look at multiple viewpoints around the question, “Should we celebrate Columbus Day?” The goal isn’t to win a debate, but to articulate both sides of the question and form a conclusion based on the critical analysis of evidence.
  • Have students write letters to their Congressperson, school board, or other institutional leaders, explaining their opinion on how Columbus Day should be commemorated, if at all.
  • Examine the culture and contribution of Indigenous people through primary source analysis.
  • Examine Columbus’ "discovery" of America from the perspective of an Indigenous person.
  • Discuss the Columbian exchange as a class. Look at Columbus as a turning point in history, and ask, “What impacts do we still see today?”
  • Ask students to rewrite textbook passages so that they more authentically account for what happened.
  • Explore how Columbus Day originated. Why is that historical context important? (See this additional resource on the origins of the holiday.)

Resources for teachers:

  • University of Oregon scholar Leilani Sabzalian has offered a framework for anticolonial civic education, centering on six core concepts: place, presence, perspectives, political nationhood, power, and partnerships. Listen to a podcast interview here.
  • James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, and his shorter Lies My Teacher Told Me about Christopher Columbus, critique how textbooks have covered Columbus. 
  • Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States includes detailed eyewitness accounts of how the Spanish explorers treated the Native Americans. The Zinn Education Project also includes a bunch of primary sources related to Columbus, such as writings by Bartolomé de La Casas.
  • An Indigenous History of the United States is part of a series that offers new and inclusive perspectives on U.S. history.

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