Thinking on Education: Teaching Columbus Day in the 21st Century

As Columbus Day approaches, many educators are preparing lessons about this federal holiday.

In the diverse classrooms of today, Columbus Day can be a sensitive topic. Many indigenous people protest against the colonialism symbolized by Columbus Day — while Columbus’ explorations opened the door for European settlements, often these settlements pushed indigenous groups from their ancestral lands. Many died of sickness or were enslaved.

Thus, in recent years, there has been a move by some to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead.

What is Indigenous People’s Day?

Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1792, commemorating the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing, by Italian and Catholic communities who took pride in this heritage.

American Indians, though, have protested Columbus Day for decades. Thus, Indigenous People’s Day honors the culture and traditions of indigenous people underrepresented within Eurocentric history. It aims to share the voices of those who have been silenced throughout history, such as: the Tainos of the Caribbean, the Seminoles of Florida, or the Zunis of the West.

South Dakota became the first state to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in 1990. These states followed suit:

Alaska
Hawai’i
Minnesota
Oregon
Maine
North Carolina
Vermont

Many cities also replaced the day with Indigenous People’s Day, including:

Albuquerque
Austin
Charlottesville
Cincinnati
Davenport
Denver
Detroit
Phoenix
Kansas City
Los Angeles
Louisville
Madison
Nashville
Salt Lake City
San Francisco
Wichita

Lesson Plan Ideas for Columbus Day:

When planning for Columbus Day lesson plans, teachers will want to be mindful of students of indigenous heritage, English language learners, and recent immigrants who may find the concept of celebrating Columbus Day confusing or offensive.

Inclusivity grows when students can voice their perspective, and educators implement culturally responsive teaching. Culturally responsive teaching acknowledges each student’s cultural experiences and addresses their diverse needs.

Here are a few ideas to implement this type of teaching:

• Teach beyond Columbus’s voyage — look at how it ushered in European migration, while also discussing how it affected the people already living in the Americas. Include their accomplishments, struggles, society and culture.

• Present multiple narratives of the same story.

• Invite local American Indians to speak about their culture and traditions.

• Engage students with analysis of primary sources that portray indigenous people.

• Avoid Eurocentric language and stereotypes.

Whether your city or state observes Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day, or both, you can give students an opportunity to engage with history from various cultural lenses, think critically about past events in our shared history, and give voice to all of history’s people.

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