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 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.