Columbus Day vs. Indigenous Peoples’ Day
Happy Friday, everyone.
Monday is Columbus Day. Or Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It depends on who you ask.
It’s an embattled, politicized holiday, and has been since at least 1892, the first federally recognized celebration of Columbus Day. Columbus Day has always been motivated by a muddle of identity politics (especially for Italian Americans), pride in the New World, and political issues.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a modern counterweight that is also politicized. The idea has been around since the 1970s and really took off in the early 90s: if Columbus is a symbol of conquest and subjugation, why not just supplant his day with a day to stand in solidarity with the conquered and subjugated?
The issue is still contested. Last year, Biden used his Columbus Day address to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and different states have different approaches to the holidays.
That these are still-contested, competing political holidays make it quite difficult for educators to approach this day successfully as school holidays.
For older students it’s a good opportunity to think about the controversy, which is great—but it makes for an odd holiday, which are usually about community celebration and rituals that exemplify shared values.
I don’t have any conclusive, systematic answers as to the best way to approach this Monday in October in our schools. I think probably this day just needs to be completely rethought in an educational context. But I do have a few thoughts.
1. Columbus did amazing things, but he’s beyond flawed.
He’s certainly not in my pantheon of heroes and, when we teach him and design curricular resources around him, we do not shy away from his mixed record.
This is not a problem in the context of history education. There’s no need to present a gold-glory-and-god explorer and brutal colonial governor as a hero. But what about the context of a holiday that is meant to symbolize and celebrate something? Columbus is a real problem here: he’s a bad symbol for whatever he's supposed to symbolize.
Is he supposed to symbolize the Age of Discovery? There are better explorers, even better Italian explorers.
Is he supposed to symbolize the “New World”, the “Columbian Exchange”, the onset of globalization? That is almost too big a topic for a holiday. A day that is nominally about Columbus is now being used to ritualize conclusions about what is in fact one of the biggest topics in a child’s education: we offer years of history and civic education is to grapple with and understand the causes and consequences of the last 600 years of globalization.
Compare that to Columbus Day, how it’s usually done: a fairly simplistic, myth-like presentation of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María, with the target of general celebration being rather unclear.
Education can include myths, but should always be aimed at understanding. Columbus Day doesn't seem to help with that. And Columbus is part of the problem. In 1492, the world changed along every possible dimension of interest. Columbus himself was involved in that change, but he doesn’t exemplify it well.
2. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is, if anything, more politicized.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day has always been sold, at least partly, as a counter-celebration. Some of it is opposition to Columbus as a particular man, but some of it is opposition to the aforementioned things that Columbus has been associated with, such as globalization. As with Columbus Day, any time you see contentious activism in your peripheral vision, you should be suspicious that it’s really serving independent understanding in students.
What’s even worse is that “indigenous” is not an especially central concept in education about culture and history.
“Indigenous” brings together a huge number of extremely different cultures under one heading: their non-Europeanness, their fate at the hands of European explorers. We take cultures as different as the Mayans and the Lakota and treat them as the same because they were there before the Europeans. This blocks learning.
It’s also undignified. Forget about what amazing things these cultures did themselves, or how they differed from (or even warred with) one another, or what one might learn from a variegated set of traditions. What matters is that they are indigenous. That they were here first. Which really means that they were not here second.
To make non-European the essential is to center Europe in a patronizing and uninformative way. Again, it blocks learning. Educators, who are making it their mission to foster understanding, are given the vast fog of “indigenous” as an organizing concept.
3. There are small version school celebrations of both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day that work, because they hone in on something more specific.
I’m sure that many of you reading this do Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrations that are appropriate to your community. This might involve, in the case of Columbus Day, some aspect of the Columbus story—a focus on his exploration rather than his exploitation, or a focus on what he meant to Italians (or Italian-Americans). Or, for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, not using it as a counter-celebration but rather infusing it with the specific substance of different cultures, or even of a specific culture (say of a member of the school or class community).
This is fine. I do like the idea of a student being able to celebrate the Age of Discovery (as in some variants of Columbus Day), and also of a student finding value in pre-Discovery world cultures (as in some variants of Indigenous Peoples’ Day). But it’s solving the problem by dodging the nominal import of having a big holiday, which neither really merits.
Put differently: both of those things happen—and should happen—routinely in schools outside of the context of holidays, and generally in ways more suitable to normal curricula and school activities.
4. The day needs to be reframed.
I’m not sure if there needs to be a holiday here at all. But if there does, in a school context, I generally like the idea of educators leaning more into the fact that 1492 was a Really Big Deal. That it changed every culture, unified the globe economically, even changed biology. But, on that approach, to be a holiday, it needs to be humanized somehow, into a story or a framework for stories.
Perhaps something like the idea of New Worlds: the idea that something so big happened that it presented and continues to present major new opportunities and potentially devastating challenges for everyone. We’re in the centuries-long throes of many human cultures interfacing more and more with many others. Good or bad, it is tremendously important, it is ripe with meaning, it is something to stand before in some awe.
This sort of frame has the potential to motivate in students the quest to understand, which is fundamental to our role as educators. And it does so in a way that is educational, not political. It doesn’t politicize the issue in the direction of specific conclusions, or in the direction of being morally arid: part of the motivation to understand is that this is so clearly important.
So, those are some thoughts.
If you have a way of celebrating Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day in your classroom or school community, I’d love to know about it.
Enjoy your weekends,
Executive Director, Montessorium