The Columbus Day celebrations in the United States – designed to honor the legacy of the man who is credited with “discovering” the New World – are almost as old as the nation itself. October 1792, the 300th anniversary of his landing. But since the 1990s, more and more states have begun to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day – a holiday designed to honor the culture and history of the people of America before and after the arrival of Columbus.
In the following questions and answers, Susan C. Faircloth, Coharie Tribe of North Carolina Enrolled Member and Professor of Education at Colorado State University, explains the history of Indigenous Peoples Day and what it means to American education.
For many indigenous peoples, Columbus Day is a controversial holiday. Because Columbus is not considered a discoverer, but a colonizer. His arrival resulted in the violent land grabbing and paving the way for widespread death and loss of indigenous ways of life.
In 1990, South Dakota – currently the third largest Native American state in the United States – became the first state to officially recognize Native American Day, commonly referred to as Indigenous Peoples Day in other parts of the country.
More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia now recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. These states include Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Indigenous Peoples Day offers educators a chance to rethink their ways of what some call the “disinfected” story of the arrival of Columbus. This version omits or downplays the devastating effects of Columbus’ arrival on indigenous peoples. Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity to reconcile the tensions between these two perspectives.
Research has shown that many schools do not accurately represent tribal peoples when teaching history. I think this is true not just on Indigenous Peoples Day, but throughout the school year. Researchers have found that K-12 schools tend to teach about Native Americans as if they only existed in the past. By revising the curriculum to better reflect both past and current stories and indigenous peoples’ stories, educators can teach students more accurately about their cultures, stories, and traditions.
Yes, the move from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day has met opposition from communities across the country. In 2021, parents in Parsippany, New Jersey, protested the local school board’s decision to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. Among other things, they cited the lack of community contribution, the failure to honor the legacy of Italian immigrants, and the need for a “more balanced image of Columbus”. In response, the school board removed the names of all holidays from their calendar. Now the holidays are only referred to as “free days”.
I would recommend “Read My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus” by sociologist and educator James Loewen. I would also recommend “An indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People” by historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. These books help illustrate both the impact of the arrival of Columbus on the indigenous peoples of America and the role of the indigenous peoples in the founding of the United States. This is information that is typically lacking in K-12 schools.
Other resources are available from organizations such as the National Museum of the American Indian, Learning for Justice, and IllumiNative. These resources include sample lesson plans, books, and videos that reflect the diversity of Native American peoples and tribes. For example, an IllumiNative lesson plan offers students the opportunity to learn about Indigenous Peoples Day while also exploring ways to honor and protect land, air, and water. Such teachings are important as they address the way in which the conservation of natural resources is essential to the economic self-determination and self-sufficiency of indigenous nations.
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By Susan C. Faircloth, Professor and Director of the School of Education, Colorado State University
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.