For those of us who have been teaching for any length of time, the second week in October typically brings with it discussions of Christopher Columbus and the explorations that led him to the Americas. For many, perhaps this leads into a unit of study about other explorers and discoveries in U.S. history as well.
However, in the last few years, a different celebration has become more talked about than it has been in the years before. This holiday has taken the place of or has been celebrated in addition to Columbus Day. This special day is called Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
What is Indigenous Peoples’ Day?
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is celebrated the second Monday in October. People began celebrating this holiday in 1977. It was established as a counter celebration to Columbus Day as many aspects of how the Indigenous or Native peoples were treated in relation to Christopher Columbus’ exploration of the Americas has been left out or misrepresented. Some choose to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. Some celebrate both. Either way, it is important that we recognize and celebrate the Native peoples of our country.
On this day, we can recognize the Native peoples of the past and present by celebrating their contributions and culture. School curriculum regarding the history of Native Americans, in most states, ends as early as 1900. The movement associated with Indigenous Peoples’ Day strives to improve the historical representation of Native peoples in school curriculum and promote accurate representations of Native peoples in society.
Why is it Important for Students to Recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day?
In learning about Indigenous Peoples’ Day, students learn about the impact that colonialism has had on native people in the Western World. This teaches students many valuable lessons. First, it promotes critical thinking. It helps students see the other side of the story, more than what they have always heard about Christopher Columbus. It also helps them realize that social justice issues are not new, developing compassion and appreciation for others in their own communities.
For so many people, Indigenous Peoples’ Day represents a reconciliation with the years of history retellings in which Native people have been misrepresented or left out. It is a form of justice for those that feel they have been wronged or mistreated because of their race or ethnicity.
How to Recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Your Class
Perhaps this year, instead of implementing the usual Columbus Day activities, try some activities that promote student learning of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Unpack misrepresentations of Columbus:
A great place to start is to walk through some of the misconceptions about Columbus and his explorations. For example, it is often said that Columbus “discovered” America. However, since there were people already there when he arrived, it is safe to say that he did not discover it. He simply arrived.
The negative impact of his arrival to the Native people is also often left out in Columbus Day discussions. Many of the Native peoples died because of new diseases that Columbus and his men brought with them from Europe, for which the Natives had no immunity. Some Native people were enslaved. Their land was taken over by foreigners. Discuss these and other misconceptions in detail with your students on Columbus Day.
Celebrate Native American Culture:
There are over 500 recognized tribes of Native Americans, each with its own culture and traditions. This would be a great opportunity to read examples of Native American legends and stories. Native American art could also be explored through virtual field trips. On the Native Stock website, there are thousands of images and videos of Native Americans that give students a visual regarding traditional Native American clothing and activities.
Native Stock also has photos showing modern-day Native Americans participating in current events and activities. This is a great starting point for dispelling some of the stereotypes associated with Native Americans.
For example, throughout many historical resources, Native Americans are depicted as one group with a lot of very similar people. However, this is not the truth. Each tribe is very different from the next. They each have their own traditional clothing, traditions, arts, etc. Exploring the different tribes can help students eliminate some stereotypes that may already exist.
Debate: Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day:
Divide your class into three groups. After students have had time to research and listen to discussion about the different sides to the argument of Columbus Day vs. Indigenous Peoples’ Day, assign them a side to debate: Pro-Columbus Day, Pro-Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Pro-Celebrating both. They don’t have to be put on a side that they already agree with. Assign them to their groups randomly. This forces students to consider the other side and encourages critical thinking.
Read an Indigenous Writer:
There are books available for the youngest of readers up to high school and beyond, written by indigenous writers and about indigenous people and their history. For older students, a great book to shed light on the journey of Native people throughout the history of our nation is An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People. This edition is written with young people in mind with guiding discussion questions throughout.
Native Plant Life:
For a science component, learn about indigenous plants. Indigenous plants are necessary for a healthy ecosystem. Learn about indigenous plants in your area and how insects, animals, etc. are affected. You could even try planting some indigenous plants at your school and documenting their growth and ecological interactions.
Virtual Field Trips:
Your class could take a virtual trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. This is an excellent museum and a more recent addition to the Smithsonian museums in Washington D.C.
It is critical that we as educators promote an accurate representation of history, do our research, and do the best we can to convey the most accurate message to our students without prejudice or bias. There is good to be gained from learning about and celebrating the Native peoples of our land.