The United States celebrates Columbus Day to honor the legacy and "discover" of the New World. They are nearly as old as the country itself. On the 300th anniversary Columbus' landing, the earliest Columbus Day celebration was held on October 12, 1792. Since the 1990s, however, more states have started to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. This holiday is meant to recognize the history and culture of those who lived in the Americas before and after Columbus arrived.
Susan C. Faircloth is an enrolled member in the Coharie Tribe, North Carolina, and professor of education at Colorado State University. She answers questions about the history and significance of Indigenous Peoples Day for American education.
First, why is Columbus Day so problematic?
Many Indigenous peoples find Columbus Day controversial. Because Columbus is not seen as a discovery, but as a colonizer. His arrival caused the forced taking of land, which led to widespread death and the loss of Indigenous ways.
When did Indigenous Peoples Day come about?
South Dakota, which is currently home to the third largest Native American population in the United States, became the first state in 1990 to recognize Native Americans Day. It is also known as Indigenous Peoples Day elsewhere in the country.
What does Indigenous Peoples Day do to change the world?
Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity for educators and others to rethink the way they teach what many have called a "sanitized story" about Columbus' arrival. This version ignores or minimizes the impact Columbus' arrival had on Indigenous peoples. The Indigenous Peoples Day offers an opportunity for reconciliation between these two perspectives.
Research shows that schools often don't accurately portray Indigenous peoples in history classes. This is true for all school years, not just on Indigenous Peoples Day. Research has shown that K-12 schools teach Native Americans only as if they had never existed. Teachers can better teach students about Native Americans by revising the curriculum to reflect current and past histories as well as stories.
Is there any resistance?
Yes, communities in the country have resisted the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Parsippany parents protested the decision of the local school board to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day in 2021. They cited lackluster community input, disrespect for the legacy of Italian immigrants, and the need to have a "more balanced view of Columbus." The school board responded by removing all holidays from its calendar. The holidays are now referred to simply as "days off."
Which resources would you recommend to celebrate the Indigenous Peoples Day
James Loewen, sociologist and educator, would be a good choice. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, historian, also recommended "An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Youth" These books show both the impact of Columbus' arrival on Indigenous peoples of Americas as well as the importance of Indigenous peoples in the founding America. This information is not usually available in schools for K-12.
Additional resources can be found at organizations like the National Museum of the American Indian and Learning for Justice. These resources include books, videos and sample lesson plans that show the diversity of Native American tribes and peoples. IllumiNative offers a lesson plan that allows students to learn more about Indigenous Peoples Day while also exploring ways to protect land, water, and air. These lessons are crucial because they focus on the importance of conserving natural resources for the economic self-determination of Native nations.