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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.

"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. Seattle, Minneapolis, Berkeley and the entire states of South Dakota and Hawaii 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 in 23 states will be closed on Monday, October 12, for the federally recognized honoring of Columbus, 16 states do not recognize this day as a 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:

  • Read the story of Columbus from indigenous and Western perspectives to help students understand that historical events have more than one side. Possible Native-authored texts include the comic book The 500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill (grades 9-12) and Rethinking Schools’ Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, which includes lesson ideas that can be adapted for any grade level, historical documents and creative works. These resources all help replace the “murky legends” with a celebration of indigenous survival.
     
  • Read about indigenous experiences related to colonization beyond the arrival of Columbus. “Connected to Everything” is great for elementary students. You can find middle and high school readings in TT's Perspectives text library. “The First Americans,” “Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question” and “Proclamation: To the Great White Father (November, 1969)” are a few examples. 
     
  • Conduct a mock trial of Columbus. “You Are There: The Mock Trial of Christopher Columbus,” accessible through the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) database, “asks students in grades 6-12 to evaluate statements drawn from primary and secondary sources to determine whether or not Columbus should be found guilty of crimes against humanity.”
  • For grades 2-5, read Jane Yolen’s Encounter, a picture book about Columbus’ arrival from a Taino boy’s perspective. He warns his community against welcoming this man, and later in the story, he looks back as an old man at the destruction of his people.
  • 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. 

*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.