Rethinking How We Celebrate American History—Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day! On Monday, more states, cities, and communities than ever will observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of or in addition to Columbus Day. They’re part of a larger movement to see a more complete and accurate history of the United States taught in our schools and public spaces. Given research showing that the majority of state and local curriculum standards end their study of Native American history before 1900, the importance of celebrating the survival and contemporary experience of Native peoples has never been clearer.

California Natives gather in front of City Hall to celebrate Los Angeles's second annual Indigenous Peoples Day. October 14, 2019, Los Angeles, California. (Photo courtesy of Helena Tsosie)
California Natives gather in front of City Hall to celebrate Los Angeles's second annual Indigenous Peoples Day. October 14, 2019, Los Angeles, California. (Photo courtesy of Helena Tsosie)

“The most American thing about America is American Indians.” —Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche)

The first documented observance of Columbus Day in the United States took place in New York City in 1792, on the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the Western Hemisphere. The holiday originated as an annual celebration of Italian–American heritage in San Francisco in 1869. In 1934, at the request of the Knights of Columbus and New York City’s Italian community, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared the first national observance of Columbus Day. President Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress made October 12 a national holiday three years later. In 1972 President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making the official date of the holiday the second Monday in October.

Generations of Native people, however, throughout the Western Hemisphere have protested Columbus Day. In the forefront of their minds is the fact the colonial takeovers of the Americas, starting with Columbus, led to the deaths of millions of Native people and the forced assimilation of survivors.

In 1977 participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replace Columbus Day. Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that Native people are the first inhabitants of the Americas, including the lands that later became the United States of America. And it urges Americans to rethink history.

The movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day has gained momentum and spread to states, cities, and towns across the United States. The first state to rename Columbus Day was South Dakota in 1990. Hawai’i has also changed the name of its October 12 holiday to Discovers’ Day, in honor of the Polynesian navigators who peopled the islands. Berkeley, California, became the first city to make the change in 1992, when the city council renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In 2015 an estimated 6,000 Native people and their supporters gathered at Randall’s Island, New York, to recognize the survival of the Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. The demonstration’s success and the worldwide media attention it attracted planted the seeds for creating an Indigenous Peoples’ Day in New York City. This year the nation’s capital passed a resolution to change the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Universities and schools across the country are also observing the new commemoration.

These states and the District of Columbia now observe Native American or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in place of or in addition to Columbus Day. Most of them have followed the lead of their cities and smaller communities, a list that has happily grown too long to include here

▪︎ Alabama
▪︎ Alaska
▪︎ District of Columbia
▪︎ Hawai’i
▪︎ Idaho
​▪︎ Iowa
▪︎ Louisiana
▪︎ Maine
▪︎ Michigan
▪︎ Minnesota
▪︎ New Mexico
▪︎ North Carolina
▪︎ Oklahoma
▪︎ Oregon
▪︎ South Dakota
▪︎ Vermont
▪︎ Virginia
▪︎ Wisconsin

Native students, faculty members, and friends from North and South America gather to honor Johns Hopkins University's first Indigenous Peoples Day. October 11, 2018, Baltimore, Maryland.
 Photo courtesy of Tom Jefferson Jr.

Even so, mythology about Columbus and the “discovery” of the Americas continues to be many American children’s first classroom lesson about encountering different cultures, ethnicities, and peoples. Teaching more accurate and complete narratives and differing perspectives is key to our society’s rethinking its history. In the last few years, the museum has hosted Indigenous Peoples’ Curriculum Days and Teach-Ins at the beginning of the school year in Washington, New York, and this year on line. Teaching for Change, a Washington-based national education organization, and the museum’s Education Office work with teachers of students from kindergarten through 12th grade in sessions that range from student activism to defend the environment or abolish Columbus Day; to skills such as critical literacy, art, and facilitated dialogue; to inquiry-based lessons available through the museum’s online education initiative Native Knowledge 360°.

In 2018 Sarah Shear, assistant professor of Social Studies Education at Penn State University–Altoona, gave the keynote presentation, based on research on U.S. history standards from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In 2015, Dr. Shear and her collaborators Ryan T. Knowles, Gregory J. Soden, and Antonio J. Castro published data showing that 87 percent of the references to Native Americans in U.S. curricula are in the context of American history before 1900. “The narrative presented in U.S. history standards,” they write, “when analyzed with a critical eye, directed students to see Indigenous Peoples as a long since forgotten episode in the country’s development.” Shear and her colleaguse see serious implications in the way the United States teaches its history:

When one looks at the larger picture painted by the quantitative data, it is easy to argue that the narrative of U.S. history is painfully one sided in its telling of the American narrative, especially with regard to Indigenous Peoples’ experiences. . . .

The qualitative findings further illuminate a Euro-American narrative that reinstitutes the marginalization of Indigenous cultures and knowledge. Indigenous Peoples are left in the shadows of Euro-America’s destiny, while the cooperation and conflict model provides justification for the eventual termination of Indigenous Peoples from the American landscape and historical narrative. Finally, a tone of detachment, especially with long lists of legal and political terms, dismisses the humanity of Indigenous cultures and experiences in the United States.

In 2019, the co-editors of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States—librarian and educator Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh) and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz—headlined workshops in Washington and New York. Reese, founder of the highly respected resource American Indians in Children's Literature, describe their work on An Indigenous People's History as shining bright lights on historic episodes that are left out of most books. “As much as we could,” Reese says, “we wanted to give readers the kind of information that’s known within Native families, communities, and nations. We believe that it is vital that all citizens of the United States know more about the people whom we regard, as a society, as being heroic. There are different points of view.”

This year, more than 250 teachers in the United States and around the world attended the 2020 Indigenous Peoples’ Day Virtual Teach-In, which focused on Food and Water Justice. Winona LaDuke (member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg of the White Earth Teservation) gave the keynote presentation on the importance of biodiversity, especially in light of climate change and the pandemic. Two rounds of workshops followed, using classroom resources from the museum’s national education intitiative, Native Knowledge 360°, and the Zinn Education Project’s Teach Climate Justice. Videos of the keynote address and the workshops The Inka Empire: What Innovations Can Provide Food and Water for Millions? and American Indian Responses to Environmental Challenges are available online. (Workshops that included interactive lessons with breakout rooms were not recorded.)

Things are changing. This year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, states, cities, towns, counties, community groups, churches, universities, schools, and other institutions are observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day primarily with virtual activities that raise awareness of the rich history, culture, and traditions of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. They do so thanks to Native people and their allies who gathered for decades—and will gather again when we can do so safely—at prayer vigils, powwows, symposiums, concerts, lectures, rallies, and classrooms to help America rethink American history.

Today at 1 p.m. Eastern time, join us online for a special Indigenous Peoples’ Day presentation of Youth in Action: Conversations about Our Future. How do our memories of the past inform and influence the current racial and social landscape? Hear young Native activists share their thoughts on history and memory, and how current movements happening across America reflect the tension between different ways of looking at the past. With a performance by hip hop artist Frank Waln (Sicangu Lakota) and an introduction by Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian.

In a companion post on Smithsonian Voices, the museum shares more suggestions for celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day from home.

Renée Gokey (citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma) is the teacher services coordinator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonians National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

This post was originally published on October 7, 2018. It has been updated for Indigenous People’s Day 2019 and 2020.