Columbus Day is a federal holiday that commemorates Christopher Columbus’ landing in the Americas (the “New World”) on October 12, 1492. It became an official holiday in 1937. For many, the holiday honors Columbus’ achievements, celebrates Italian-American culture and heritage and pays tribute to patriotism. According to a 2013 poll, 58% of Americans still believe the U.S. should honor the Italian explorer. At the same time, throughout history, Columbus Day and Christopher Columbus have generated much controversy. In recent years, many alternatives to the holiday have emerged. The main sources of controversy involve Columbus and the other Europeans’ interactions with the indigenous people that led to hundreds of years of: (1) violence and slavery, (2) forced assimilation and conversion of Native American people to Christianity and (3) the introduction of a host of new diseases that would have dramatic long-term effects on Native American people.
In 1977, the idea of replacing Columbus Day with a day commemorating the indigenous people of North America was proposed by the International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, sponsored by the United Nations. Fourteen years later, in 1992, the city council in Berkeley, California declared October 12 as a “Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People” and symbolically renamed Columbus Day “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” beginning in 1992. Berkeley was the first city to do so. Since then, several states, cities and universities have followed suit.
This lesson provides an opportunity for students to learn more about Columbus Day, reflect on why some cities and states have renamed it Indigenous Peoples Day and consider their own points of view on the topic by engaging in a writing project to express their perspective.