ARTICLE

Reconsider Columbus Day

Teachers have the power to change the practice of celebrating Columbus to a practice of celebrating indigenous peoples’ presence, endurance and accomplishments. This blogger suggests how to do just that.
Photography by Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

"In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships. He left from Spain. He sailed through sunlight, wind and rain."

We all know this rhyme, having learned it in elementary school. We also know it celebrates a man who literally was lost. It’s time for this to stop. It’s time to reconsider Columbus Day.*

Columbus Day is the wrong story, a story that injures all of us with its focus on a disoriented European. A better story—and better point of focus—is one that celebrates indigenous peoples who not only pre-date Columbus, but who persist and excel in an often hostile U.S. social and political environment. 

Teachers have the power to change the practice of celebrating Columbus to a practice of celebrating indigenous peoples’ presence, endurance and accomplishments. Dozens of U.S. cities and the entire states of South Dakota, Hawaii, Vermont, Minnesota and Alaska now celebrate some version of “Indigenous Peoples Day” instead of Columbus Day. There’s even a Wikipedia page describing the holiday designation.

While many schools across the United States will be closed on Monday for the federally recognized honoring of Columbus, a growing number of states do not observe this holiday.

It’s clear that the story of the indigenous peoples affected by Columbus—and the colonizers who followed him—is gaining traction in local and state governments, as it should. But teachers also play a crucial role in highlighting that story in a deeper way. Regardless of where your school is located, consider engaging your students in a different story leading up to Columbus Day with one of the following activities:

  • For younger grades, read Thomas King’s A Coyote Columbus Story. This book, recommended by critics Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese, introduces young readers to the role Columbus played in Indigenous enslavement. The text is particularly notable for its age-appropriate approach and its refusal to erase Indigenous peoples.
  • Have students write letters to the town council or mayor detailing their concerns about honoring Columbus and considerations for honoring the cultures and contributions of indigenous communities in your region. The Persuasive Letters (grades 3-5) and Truth to Power: Writing Letters for Change (grades 6-12) activities in Perspectives are excellent ways to connect class readings and discussions with action.

Thomas King writes in The Truth About Stories that “stories are medicine” and have the power to injure or heal. Observing a holiday in honor of Columbus and his exploits sends the wrong message. More important, it hurts Native Americans by reinforcing their absence from our national consciousness and hurts those who aren’t Native by lauding the arrival of a European instead of the more impressive healing story of indigenous survival. The indigenous story is more accurate, and it’s a story that students deserve to hear.

If stories are medicine, then the doctor is in. The prescription: Write and speak a healing narrative that honors Native peoples. 

 

Additional Resources

*Note: Although the website associated with the “Reconsider Columbus Day” video no longer exists, the video and its message remain powerful and persuasive.

Morris teaches writing and Native American/Indigenous Rhetorics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

Editor’s Note: This short article was updated in 2019 based on reader feedback to include A Coyote Columbus Story.