Why Do We (Still) Celebrate Columbus Day?

In this lesson, students will address misconceptions they likely have about Christopher Columbus and the colonization of what is now the United States.
Grade Level


Students will be able to:

  • explain the false history that is often taught about Christopher Columbus and why he is celebrated in the United States.
  • identify reasons Native youth want to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day.
Essential Questions
  • What impact do unjust behaviors, rules and laws have on people? (Justice)
  • How can people work together to address an injustice? (Action)



Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will address misconceptions they likely have about Christopher Columbus and the colonization of what is now the United States. Students will watch a video to dispel some of the myths associated with Columbus and gain a better understanding of how Columbus Day became a national holiday. Students will then read interviews with Indigenous youth and identify the reasons that celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day matters to them. This lesson can be taught on Columbus Day or leading up to it.



brutal [broo-tl] (adjective) extremely violent 

colonize [kol-uh-nahyz] (verb) to send a group of people to a place and establish political control over it 

conquest [kaang-kwest] (noun) the act of taking territory, or land, by force 

discriminate [duh-skri-muh-neit] (verb) to treat a group of people unjustly based on their group identity

icon [ahy-kon] (noun) a person or thing that is respected or worshiped

genocide [jen-uh-sahyd] (noun) violence against a racial, political or cultural group, with the intent to destroy the group 

glorify [glawr-uh-fahy] (verb) to see something as better than it actually is

Indigenous [uhn-di-juh-nuhs] (adjective) originating from a region or place 

legacy [leg-uh-see] (noun) anything handed down from the past

patriotism [pei-tree-uh-ti-zm] (noun) a sense of love and attachment to one’s country 

Definitions are adapted from Lexico, powered by Oxford’s English Dictionary


Suggested Procedure

1. Ask students to raise their hands if they know which federal holiday today is (or if teaching the week before, on Monday). Then, tell students that today (or Monday) is Columbus Day. Ask students to show you how much they know about why we celebrate Columbus Day with a sign: by giving you a thumbs down (I have no idea), a thumbs sideways (I’ve heard of Columbus and I know a little about him), or a thumbs up (I am sure I know why we celebrate Columbus Day). Have students turn and talk to a shoulder partner about what they know about Columbus. Check in with students who gave you a thumbs down after the video when then are discussing in small groups.

2. Introduce students to the topic and objectives. Tell students that they will be learning more about who Christopher Columbus was, why a national holiday celebrates him, and why some people want the holiday changed. Tell students you are going to use a KWL chart to track their learning, and at the end of the lesson, you will ask them to identify the reasons people want the holiday changed. 

3. Tell students to turn and talk about what they think they know about why Christopher Columbus is celebrated each year. Circulate and note student responses, especially misconceptions. Call on four or five students and write their thinking on the K (know) column of the KWL chart on the board. Ask students what they wonder about Columbus and write their responses in the W column. 

4. Tell students that it is common to have some misunderstandings about who Columbus was and American colonization because we often do not learn the real history. In the past, teachers haven’t told the whole story to younger students because some of the things Columbus did were very violent. Tell students that now you are going to watch a video that tells a more accurate story about who Columbus was. After watching the video, you will pause the lesson to check in about how they are feeling. Introduce the vocabulary term colonize. Preview vocabulary from the video with students (words in the video in order of appearance are brutal, conquest, discriminate, icon, glorify, patriotism and Indigenous).

5. Direct students to write down 2-3 new things they learn about Columbus as they watch the video “Why the U.S. Celebrates Columbus Day” in their notebooks or piece of paper.  Here are some places to pause and make sure students understand the content of the video.

  • 1:48 - Tell students that the term Indian is no longer accepted because it is incorrect. People of Native nations had names for themselves when Columbus landed and do today, and many prefer that we use those names. When talking about Native groups in general, you might use Indigenous. Some Indigenous people do use the terms American Indian and Native American. It is important to ask what someone prefers when talking about their identity. 
  • 4:05 - Point out to students that the word federal is a synonym for national. 

  • 4:16 - Stop the video on the cartoon. Tell students that the image shows some of the laws and practices that harmed Native Nations after European colonizers took their land, starting with Columbus. These laws and practices are some of the reasons that Native Americans and others do not see Columbus as a hero. 

6. After the video, use the “Check in With Students” strategy from page 8 of Let’s Talk! to have students communicate how they are feeling during and after the video: fist = I am very uncomfortable and cannot move on; 1 = I am uncomfortable and need help before I can move on; 2 = I am a little uncomfortable, but I want to try to move on; 3 = I am not sure how I am feeling; 4= I am comfortable enough to move on; 5 = I am definitely ready to move on. Ask students: “How did the video make you feel?” Why is it important to learn about this?” After students share their thoughts, you can tell your own story about learning about Columbus and why it feels essential to teach this lesson. 

7. After checking in, ask students if they noticed how the video says “the country Columbus never visited” and “made it to the U.S.” Remind them that it is important to recognize this kind of language because this land has not always been the United States. And note that, even when using a source with useful information, it is crucial to think critically.

8. Have small groups of students discuss what they wrote down in their L column while watching. Encourage students to add to their notes. Then, prompt students to discuss the following: Why did people start celebrating Columbus Day in the United States? How were Italian immigrants being treated when they arrived in America, and what did celebrating Columbus do for their community? Why do you think some people have rejected celebrating Columbus since historians have examined his legacy? What are some cities and states doing now instead?

9. Continue the discussion about the origins of Columbus day and the discrimination against Italian immigrants whole group. Ask students what myths on the whole-group KWL need to be crossed out, what should be added to the L column and what they are wondering because of the video. Add student thinking to the chart.

10. Tell students that, as the video indicates, Indigenous activists have been fighting to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day because of Columbus’s harmful impact on Native American nations, communities and histories. Now that the truth is becoming more widely known, people are pressuring their communities to stop celebrating Columbus Day. As of September 2019, nine states (Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont, South Dakota, New Mexico, Oregon, Maine and Louisiana) have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Nevada has not eliminated Columbus Day but has added a celebration for Indigenous People in August. Fifty-two cities now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

11. Have students read “5 Young Native Americans on What Indigenous Peoples’ Day Means to Them.” As they are reading, tell students to circle unknown vocabulary and underline the reasons that each person gives for the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. When students are finished, have them each work with a partner to define unknown words and share the reasons they found.

12. In pairs, small groups or as a whole class, have students discuss how the national Columbus Day affects Native youth, using examples they underlined in the text. Why do Native youth feel that celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day is important? Student responses might include the following: that Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes Indigenous people's presence on this land before colonization; that it acknowledges the trauma colonization caused Indigenous communities; that it encourages individuals to learn about their Indigenous ancestry; and that it helps show non-Native Americans that Indigenous people are still here.

13. Wrap up: Ask students what they know about how their community celebrates the second Monday in October. Students might not know, so make sure to have information on hand about the nations and tribes indigenous to your city, town or community and the status of local Columbus Day celebrations before teaching this lesson. If Columbus Day is still recognized by their town/city/school, ask students to reflect on the following questions: How might that make Indigenous people feel? What could we do to find out if Indigenous people in our community are fighting to have the holiday changed and if so, how could we amplify their concerns? If there are Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrations in your community or an effort to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, ask students what they could do to support the advocacy of these Native communities.


Alignment to Common Core State Standards





Extension Activity

Write to the Source

Problem Solver

This prompt asks students to identify a problem in the text and present a solution. Tell students to write a speech identifying the impact of continuing to celebrate Columbus Day on the Indigenous community and propose a solution. Students should defend the solution with evidence from the video and the text.


Make the Connection to Being an Ally

Tell students that being an ally means advocating for the changes that someone from a historically marginalized identity group is asking for. Ask students what changes they would like to see, based on what they’ve learned from Indigenous activists. Have each student write a letter or make a poster amplifying the demands of these Native American youth. If students wrote to the source about possible solutions, they can incorporate those in their advocacy.