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Here's How You Can Talk About Christopher Columbus in Your Classroom

When I invite teachers to rethink how they teach Columbus at our semiannual UnColumbus Day Symposium in Philadelphia, many teachers think it’s not for them. “I don’t teach about Columbus. I don’t even mention him.” They tell me. “I just say, ‘I’ll see you Tuesday!’” 

This, I think, is a mistake. It definitely seems better not to mention Columbus than to honor and hero-ify him. But not teaching about Columbus does not erase him from the calendars, the history books and, frankly, the unconscious minds of most Americans who could recite the second stanza of “In 1492 …” without blinking. 

We are raised on Columbus, the Nina, the Pinta … and on the myth of Thanksgiving. We believe it, we want to believe it and our nationalist pride is tied to it. Meanwhile, most people have very little knowledge of the actual history that occurred, or the fact that there is a group of Native people who gather annually at Plymouth Rock on the day of Thanksgiving for an “annual day of mourning” while most of the country is celebrating America with football, Macy’s and turkey.

https://youtu.be/kt6xL1ZewT4

This story—this one-sided story—which leads to a singular day on which some citizens party while others mourn—is part of what accounts for the massive fractures in our understanding of one another, how we got here and how to move forward. It is rooted in the way this story is told—or not told—in schools.

The mainstream history which is taught in most U.S. schools and in U.S. culture, even when we simply try to “ignore Columbus,” sets up students to have an understanding of history told from the perspective of the colonists, a history that celebrates Columbus, a history that erases the indigenous people who lived here—and those indigenous people who still live here. 

This is important to me because this is the history that I learned. Starting with “sitting Indian style,” wearing feathers in a construction paper headdress, counting 1 little, 2 little, 3 little Indians in kindergarten, to a love affair with the “Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder in which I learned to identify with a White child who was the child of settlers and see Native people as “other,” to the Oregon Trail in fifth grade!

In the Oregon Trail Game—a highlight of fifth grade for many students then and now—I was a wagon train leader who led my team on an expedition out west, facing dangerous snakes, food shortages and “Native Americans,” all the while stopping in cities and passing landmarks that each (I know now) had multiple names—and for which we only used the Western colonized names, most of which continue to appear on official maps today. I learned to see Native people as dangerous, savage, objects, stereotypes, irrelevant and extinct.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on this. I have spent the last 20 years of my life unlearning mainstream history in order to be able to connect with and understand the perspective of Native friends and colleagues. The journey is ongoing.

With my own children, I hid multiple copies of “Little House on the Prairie” in my “offensive books drawer,” along with “Skippyjon Jonesand “Little Miss Trouble” before my daughter consumed the entire series during library at school. I couldn’t prevent her from reading it—it’s too ubiquitous (and my daughter may be—even unconsciously—resistant to my heavy-handed censorship). But it did motivate me to provide a counternarrative. 

Together we read the five-book “Birchbark House” series by Ojibwe and German American author Louise Erdrich, who writes compellingly about an Ojibwe girl named Omakayas, whom readers follow from a life only tangentially impacted by colonialism, through forced migration, to a life bound and restricted by the mandates of the U.S. government.

My daughter and I both fell in love with Omakayas and ached with her and her family for all that colonialism destroyed—not just the personal lives of individuals (though that was a huge part of it), but also the collective knowledge systems and ways of being that could possibly offer answers to some of the hardest questions human beings ask today, as we face the certain unsustainability of capitalism and consumerism. Through her storytelling, Erdrich gave us an ability to see history with a lens other than the mainstream one that is otherwise so easily accessible to us that we don’t even realize it’s there. 

Compared to the size of the problem, UnColumbus Day—and even this blog—felt small. Only 3 hours. Only one blogpost. But in those 3 hours, we created a space in which we could think about a topic that is critical to understanding our country and ourselves—and we were able to critically analyze our lenses for viewing the world, lenses that are so pervasive, we often don’t even see them. 

I don’t say this to justify our meager efforts or make them seem loftier than they are. I say it because I imagine there are teachers out there who think the small efforts they might make to change a book this year, do a land acknowledgment at a faculty meeting or use different language next year might pale in comparison to another teacher’s effort to get her town to adopt “Indigenous People’s Day” in place of “Columbus Day” or have local tribal members help shape the curriculum. I say it because even a small beginning can help lead to a shift in consciousness—for you and for your students. 

I encourage you to join me in taking one step forward, however small it might be compared to the enormity of the shift that is required because it will take each of us breaking the silence and beginning to recognize and honor the existence of Native people on this land to begin to make change. 

Listed below are a few of our suggestions for how to begin shifting how you teach about Columbus and Thanksgiving:

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 history/social studies. It widens the performance gap. 

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. Rather than being didactic or dogmatic, present the facts and help students think for themselves.
  • Some schools, districts and counties have changed the name “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day”. Introduce the idea to your school board, your town council or your students.
  • Invite Native people from your area to come speak. 
  • Ask yourself, “Does my curriculum teach students to identify with Columbus, European colonizers and settlers?” If so, create opportunities for them 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.”

Do Not Dress Children as Native Americans

  • This practice perpetuates stereotypical notions of Native Americans.
  • This practice teaches children to appropriate from other cultures.
  • Using Native American images and icons as mascots is a form of dehumanization; it objectifies Native People. Some teachers ban “Redskin” paraphernalia in their classrooms because it’s a racial slur.
  • 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.

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

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attended the Cannon Ball Flag Day Powwow in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on June 13, 2014. Obama White House Archives.
  • Show your students the incredible TED talks and photography by Matika Wilbur, Swinomish and Tulalip photographer who is documenting images and stories from the 562 Tribal Nations in the U.S. today. Join her mailing list.
  • Invite students to respond to Matika Wilbur’s challenge to learn the names of the almost 600 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.

Educate Yourself

Identify and Root Out Stereotypes From Your Curriculum and Materials

  • 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”?
Taken directly from the “Stereotype Checklist” reprinted in “Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years: Resources for Teaching about the Impact of the Arrival of Columbus in the Americas” 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..

Make Thanksgiving about Giving Thanks

  • For younger children, Thanksgiving can be about giving thanks rather than reinforcing stereotypes. 
  • Many Tribal Nations had stories about giving thanks that can be read around this time. See “Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective” (a collection of stories of 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. 

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 People’s Day.”
  • Conduct research on issues that impact Native Americans.
  • Follow the lead of Native American activists, such as those at Standing Rock.

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 the 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.

Resources

https://youtu.be/mR-tbOxlhvE

Cities and Universities That Have Renamed “Columbus Day” as “Indigenous Peoples Day”

TED Talks

Indigenous Youth Wellness 

https://educationpost.org/america-has-always-used-schools-as-a-weapon-against-native-americans/
This blogpost 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 might join us in 2021 in Philadelphia! See www.raceinstitute.org for details.
Ali Michael, Ph.D., is the co-founder and director of the Race Institute for K-12 Educators, and the author of "Raising Race Questions: Whiteness, Inquiry and Education" (Teachers College Press, 2015), winner of the 2017 Society of Professors of Education ...

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