Published 7:00 AM EDT Oct 13, 2019
For decades, Americans have marked the second Monday in October as “Columbus Day.” Why Columbus? Because, as my generation learned in school, Columbus “discovered America.”
But of course, he did not. The two continents of the Western Hemisphere, including the Caribbean islands that Columbus invaded, had long since been settled and put to use by a stunning array of peoples.
Most students today know at least that there were people here when Columbus arrived and that Columbus does not have a central role in the founding of the United States.
Scores of cities and a number of states, among them Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin, have officially renamed the federal holiday — choosing instead to honor the rich history and cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Why celebrate Columbus?
Still, the majority of American cities and states continue to celebrate a European explorer who never actually landed in what is now the United States. They do not mention that colonial takeovers of the Americas, starting with Christopher Columbus, led to the deaths of millions of Native people and the forced assimilation of survivors.
The observance of Columbus Day is the outgrowth of a whitewashed history, perpetuated in public discourse and in our schools, where native and non-native children, from the earliest age, are taught simplistic, incomplete and inaccurate information about American Indians. Think back to your own childhood. Were you taught that Pocahontas saved Captain John Smith or that “the First Thanksgiving” celebrated a lasting peace between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag?
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These simplistic and incomplete narratives do much to obscure our understanding of American history. These narratives, in turn, influence government policies and shape how non-natives respond to their Native American neighbors. The harm from ignorance and stereotypes continues to be visited on American Indian children.
I know. I was one of those children. As are my daughter and my grandson who, in a school play not long ago, was dressed up in a faux beard as a “pioneer” off to claim land for the taking in the American west.
Most current teaching of Native American history and culture also disserves non-native children and deprives them of a comprehensive view of how the country was actually formed. One-dimensional, inaccurate lessons on topics such as Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Pocahontas and the Trail of Tears erase native historical narratives and significant native contributions to the arts, sciences, military service and contemporary American life.
Value vibrant American Indian culture
Every week, teachers and parents contact the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, searching for accurate information about Native American history and cultures. As the nation’s only national museum devoted to advancing knowledge and understanding of those cultures, the museum is positioned to provide national leadership and help elevate the conversation about native peoples.
That is why the museum launched a national educational initiative providing more accurate perspectives on Native American history and cultures for educators and students. Educators can learn and then teach a more complex and nuanced history that underscores the role of Native Americans in the development and growth of the United States. The initiative coincides with the larger national conversation in our country today about race, historical monuments, sports mascots and how we remember and honor our history. One thing is certain: We can't understand who we are unless we know where we came from.
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If you value a more accurate American history, care about social justice for indigenous people and value the vibrancy of Indian culture, there are a number of steps you can take. You can encourage your child’s school to replace outmoded histories that devalue and distort native culture with rigorously researched educational content that presents a more complete and accurate American history.
In addition, talk with the young people in your life about the vibrant role indigenous peoples play today in this great country. Plan a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian, which is committed to fostering a richer shared human experience through a more informed understanding of native peoples, in Washington D.C., or New York or via our exhibitions and other resources online. Finally, set aside time today — and in the future — to acknowledge the first Americans and their contributions past and present.
Kevin Gover is director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. He is a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.