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February 25, 2021

Un-Columbus Day

Columbus Day is around the corner, and while many schools and municipalities have changed the name to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” many children will go to school next Monday and learn In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And this story — this one-sided story — will set them up to have a mainstream understanding of history, a history told from the perspective of the colonists, a history that celebrates Columbus, a history that erases the indigenous people who lived here.

This is important to me because I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life unlearning that mainstream history in order to be able to connect with and understand the perspective of Native American friends and colleagues. I propose that we begin to think creatively about how we teach the truth about Columbus, without relying on mythology and fiction. I’ve had many teachers ask me, “If I don’t teach Columbus, then what do I teach? I can’t teach about genocide in kindergarten!”

(Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson)

Here are some tips on how to reframe how we teach Columbus Day:

  1. Teach Only Truth

  • Teach about both Columbus and Native Americans. Do not suggest that they were friends.

  • If your students are too young to learn about genocide, don’t teach them about genocide. But don’t teach them falsehoods that they will have to later unlearn. Falsehoods that go in early form the template of our assumptions and common knowledge, and are very hard to unlearn.

  • For older grades, read the truth about Columbus in age-appropriate ways.

  • Teaching untruths about the racial history of the U.S. alienates people of color from school, especially in history/social studies, and this widens the performance gap.

  1. De-Center Columbus and Make Native People Visible

  • Teach enough about Columbus to help students be willing and able to make the choice not to honor him.

  • Some schools, districts, and counties have changed the name “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

  • Invite Native people from your area to come to speak.

  • Ask yourself, “Does my curriculum teach students to identify with Columbus, European colonizers, and settlers?” If so, create opportunities for students to identify with Native Americans.

  • Do your books and novels “other” Native Americans, or help students see from the perspectives of Native People?

  • Columbus was not the first to “discover” North and South America. These lands were already inhabited when he arrived. There had been explorers who came before him, whose impact is not remembered as well because they were not there to “conquer.” Columbus was not merely an “explorer,” he was an “exploiter.”

  1. Do Not Dress Children as Native Americans

A Culture, Not a Costume

(The Rocky Mountain Collegian: Cultural Appropriation on Halloween Explained)

  • This practice perpetuates stereotypical notions of Native Americans and teaches children to appropriate from other cultures.

  • Using Native American images and icons as mascots is a form of dehumanization; it objectifies Native People.

  • Rather than costumes, some schools offer black armbands to students who want to honor the Native Americans who died at the hands of Columbus and his sailors.

  1. Teach About Native Americans Today and in the 500 Years Since Columbus

Barack Obama holds a baby as he poses with children at the Cannon Ball Powwow Grounds on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, June 13, 2014. (Larry Downing / Reuters)

  • Challenge students to learn the names of the 573 federally recognized Tribal Nations in the U.S. today.

  • Challenge students to learn the names of 50 Tribal Nations near you. Who was there before you?

  • Help students understand it was not a weakness of culture on the part of Native Americans that led to their exploitation by Europeans; it was a disrespect for Native people and their cultures on the part of the Europeans.

  1. Identify and Root Out Stereotypes From Your Curriculum and Materials* (from Slapin & Seale)

  • In ABC books, is “E” for Eskimo or “I” for Indian? Are children shown “playing Indian?”

  • Are Native people shown as savages or primitive people rather than as human beings who are members of a highly complex society?

  • Are Native people always shown the same, without regard for the cultural, religious, and language differences among tribes?

  • Are Native people described with racist imagery, such as “half-naked,” “brutal,” or “bloodthirsty?” Do the Native people speak in short, inarticulate sentences such as “Me go. Soldier make fire. We now hide?”

  • Is Native culture depicted in a condescending way in which, for example, religious beliefs are “superstitions?” Is there a paternalistic distinction between “them” and “us?”

  1. Make Thanksgiving About Giving Thanks

Child in fall leaves holding a chalkboard sign that reads "Happy Thanksgiving"
  • For younger children, Thanksgiving can be about giving thanks rather than reinforcing stereotypes.

  • Many Tribal Nations have stories about giving thanks that can be read around this time. See for Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective (a collection of stories about giving thanks).

  • We do need spaces and times to learn about Native Americans and Thanksgiving can be one of those times. But it shouldn’t be the only time.

  1. Create Ways Students Can Take Action

  • Offer the option of wearing black armbands on Columbus Day to acknowledge the genocide of Native People.

  • Write letters to teams with Indian mascots to protest the stereotypical depictions.

  • Start a campaign to rename “Columbus Day” as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

  • Conduct research on issues that impact Native Americans.

  • Follow the lead of Native American activists, such as those at Standing Rock.

(Photo: Thanksgiving at Standing Rock, Driely S.)

  1. Classroom Ideas

  • Compare representations of Columbus in different books (contrast Encounter by Jane Yolen with more mainstream texts, such as the magazines produced by Scholastic). Scan images onto a Smartboard and have children discuss the differences in what they’re seeing.

  • Mark offensive stereotypes in texts with post-it notes and ask children to do the same, so they can start to recognize them and keep track of them.

  • Design a game for students to act as “Mythbusters” like the TV show, and to locate myths in popularly available Thanksgiving and Columbus Day materials.

  1. Important Facts About Native American History

Native American teepee at dusk.
  • Native American parents were forced by law to send their children to boarding schools, where traditional culture and language were decimated.
  • Not a single treaty between the United States government and Tribal Nations has been honored
  • Both the U.S. and Canada had official policies intended to assimilate and eradicate indigenous populations (e.g., The Indian Act).
  • Despite all of this, Native Americans are still here.
  1. Myths to Bust
  • Myth #1: There are no more Native Americans alive today.
  • Myth #2: Columbus discovered America.
  • Myth #3: Native Americans were/are savages who cannot think for themselves.
  • Myth #4: Manifest Destiny — God wanted European settlers to own U.S. land.
  • Myth #5: Columbus was an honorable person.
  • Myth #6: The Pilgrims and the Indians were friends and celebrated the first Thanksgiving together.
  • Myth #7: Thanksgiving is a happy time for Native Americans.
  1. Resources
  • Project 562 is the work of Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip), who is documenting photos and stories from all 562 Tribal Nations today. She challenges people to memorize the names of all 562 Tribal Nations. (Note: Since Wilbur’s work began, the federal government has officially recognized 11 additional Tribal Nations.)
  • Native Appropriations — This blog by Adrienne Keene (Cherokee Nation) discusses cultural appropriation and stereotypes of Native culture.

What will you do to celebrate the history and culture of Indigenous Peoples this Columbus Day — and every day — in your classroom? Share your ideas for more inclusive classrooms that are grounded in truth.

This blog post was developed in consultation with Wendy Thompson and is based on a workshop that I run every other year in collaboration with Toni Graves Williamson and Deborra Sines Pancoe. I hope you’ll join us November 8-10, 2018 in Philadelphia! See for details.

*The material in section 5 is taken directly from the Stereotype Checklist in Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson, page 36. It is an excerpt from the book Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale.


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