Written on 15 October 2015, 08:15am under As Seen In
Few famous figures in American history are as divisive as Christopher Columbus. Many find the Italian voyager’s reputation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A growing number of cities and states – Alaska just joined the roster – are shunning a day named for the explorer in favor of “Indigenous Peoples Day.” And schools, which reflect society’s broad cultural and political values, must find ways to navigate this new terrain.
So I looked at the annual pushback to this holiday – and went in search of how teachers talk about Columbus in an authentic way in the classroom.
Today, over 500 years after he sailed the ocean blue, Columbus is equally derided and praised. Starting with Berkeley, California, in 1992, cities started renaming the second Monday in October “Indigenous People’s Day” to shift focus from the conqueror to the conquered. Since August, eight cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, including several in just the last week. This follows both Minneapolis and Seattle, which adopted the new name in 2014, with a bevy of Native American groups and progressive activists applauding the changes.
The picture grows even more complicated when you factor in teachers and schools, which often rely on textbooks, materials, and lesson plans inundated with Anglo-American, mono-cultural viewpoints. In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen, a history professor, reviews the common misstatements and misrepresentations in the retelling of American history—from the first Thanksgiving and reconstruction to the mythology surrounding Columbus. The result is “a whitewashed version of history,” Shannon Speed, the director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed last year. “Omission of the truth is, in fact, a form of lying. I would offer that the purpose of teaching history in schools is to create critical thinkers capable of meaningful participation in a democratic society.”
(Photo: Elaine Thompson / AP)
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