Many cities and states in the U.S. have renamed Columbus Day (celebrated on the second Monday in October) as Indigenous Peoples’ Day and many places have made decisions to remove statues of Columbus. The city of Columbus, Ohio (named after Christopher Columbus) will no longer observe Columbus Day as a holiday and plans to remove a statue of Columbus from City Hall. The county will replace the holiday with Juneteenth, the celebration of the abolition of slavery.
Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937 as a way to honor Christopher Columbus’s achievements. Yet, the dark side of Columbus and the inhumane effects of colonization were largely ignored. He did not stake claim to uninhabited land. Indigenous people living on the land when Columbus (and later other colonists) arrived were enslaved, tortured, and murdered. Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that Native people are the first inhabitants of the Americas and is a call to reframe history.
The stories of Native people have been omitted or whitewashed in history books. The genocide of Native Americans and the forced removal from their land and stripping of their identities, culture, and language when sent to boarding schools is rarely discussed.
As educators, we make choices everyday. We decide what books to read with our students. We decide whose stories are honored and whose are ignored. We decide what to say and what not to say and how we say it. Sometimes our choices make us complicit in the perpetuation of institutional racism.
So what can we do? We can make intentional decisions to ensure all voices and stories are honored and celebrated. Begin by talking with students about Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Ask: “Do you know what is special about today?” Follow students lead and guide them through a discussion to determine what they already know about Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Invite them to share their own questions as a springboard for further inquiry.
As you engage in this work alongside your students, you may consider the following questions as a framework: Whose history has been told? Whose history has been silenced? ignored? or whitewashed? Who benefits as a result? How does that perpetuate inequities and injustice?
Create land acknowledgement statements such as the one created at Furman University where Katie teaches. We (Lester and Katie) both live on the ancestral homelands of the Cherokee people and Katie grew up on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in Upstate New York (also known as the Iroquois, the name given by the French colonists and therefore pejorative). Do you know whose land you live on? Do you know whose land your school resides? We invite you to research and learn about the first people of your own land.
You might read the book Encounter by Jane Yolen and discuss how this counternarrative as told by a young Taino child disrupts the dominant story of Christopher Columbus. Or you might view this short video from Adam Ruins Everything.
Additionally, share stories about and written by Indigenous authors, or #OwnVoice texts with your students all year long. Integrate these books into your bookshelves and your regular read alouds. Here are a few recommendations to get you started:
Books for Upper Elementary and Middle Grades:
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
This book tells the story of Hannah who moves with her father to the South Dakota prairie in 1880. She makes friends with the indigenous people who lived on the land long before the white settlers arrived. Seen as dangerous savages by most of the townspeople, Hannah befriends them and learns from them. This is an important detail that honors the native people who were negatively portrayed in the Laura Ingalls Wilder series that was the inspiration for Park’s book. This book could lead to conversations around land acknowledgement and students can research which Indigenous tribe first owned the land where their school and homes are located. For instance, we acknowledge that we live on the land once belonging to the Cherokee and the Catawba. Additionally, this book could be a springboard for conversations about marginalized perspectives during the westward expansion. *Note: This book is part of the 2020 Global Read Aloud.
Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis with Traci Sorell
This historical fiction novel is based on real events in the author’s life. It takes place during the 1950s on the Grand Ronde Tribe’s reservation. When the government passed the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 indigenous people were forced to move off reservations. They were told they would receive job training, transportation, a new home, and be assimilated. When faced with this situation, Regina and her family moved to Los Angeles and she becomes “Indian no more” and her life changes instantly. Her new neighborhood has more concrete than grass, new food, new friends, a larger school, and she and her new friends experience racism. Her grandmother (chich) helps her remember stories of her people and memories from the rez. *Note: This book is part of the 2020 Global Read Aloud.
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz Adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese
This highly informative book is a must read as you expand your own understanding and knowledge of history and is appropriate for middle grades and young adults.