Thoughts on Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Written by Dr. Matt Bateman on November 18, 2021

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, also-politicized counterweight. These features—and the fact that they contentiously compete—make it difficult for educators to approach this day successfully as school holidays.

Probably this day just needs to be reformed and rethought in an educational context. But, in the meantime, here are some 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.

That’s fine in the context of history. 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.

What is he supposed to symbolize?

The Age of Discovery? There are better explorers, even better Italian explorers.

The “New World”, the “Columbian Exchange”, the onset of globalization? That is too much to bite off a day about Columbus. One of the major, ongoing purposes of years of history and civic education is to grapple with and understand these things.

But Columbus Day, how it's usually done, is 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 doesn't exemplify that well.

2. Indigenous Peoples' Day is, if anything, more politicized.

Part of the sell is that it's an anti-globalization holiday. And any time you see contentious activism in your peripheral vision, you should be suspicious that it's really serving independent understanding in students.

Worse, “indigenous” is not a particularly useful concept in education about culture and history. It 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 Lakota and the Mayans and treat them as the same. 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 is the essential is to center Europe in a patronizing and uninformative way. It *blocks* learning. Educators, who are making careers out of fostering 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 sort of work, because they home in on something more specific.

This might be some aspect of the Columbus story, or what he meant to Italians (or Italian-Americans). Or, for Indigenous Peoples' Day, the specific substance of the culture of some member of the school or class community.

But these are solving the problem by dodging the nominal import of having a big holiday, which neither really merits. Put differently: both of those things happen routinely in schools outside of the context of holidays.

4. The day needs to be reframed.

I generally like the idea, at least for educators, of leaning more into the fact that 1492 was a Really Big Deal, that it changed every culture, unified the economy globally, 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. Maybe not a hero story, exactly, but something with awe, something ripe with meaning, something myth-like.

I like the idea of New Worlds—of something so big happening that it presents major new opportunities and potentially devastating challenges for everyone. Or a global, more education-friendly version of Iain Banks's "Outside Context Problem".

I also do like the idea of celebrating Discovery and mining pre-Discovery world cultures for value. Both are treasure troves for students.

Dr. Matt Bateman

Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.

In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.