Social Studies

Q&A: How to Teach Indigenous Peoples' Day

20 Min Read
How to teach indigenous peoples day

From left to right: Interviewees David O'Connor, Emma Humphries, and Maria Marable-Bunch, who spoke with HMH about teaching Indigenous Peoples' Day.

With recent events across our country, there is a greater need to discuss topics about content, equity, inclusion, and diversity in education. The social studies classroom is particularly suited to fostering these conversations, as it includes holidays, histories, and civic life. Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which is currently celebrated in 15 states and over 100 cities in place of Columbus Day, provides a great opportunity for this whether you live in an area that celebrates it or not. Our guests discuss why!

To learn more about the recognition of Indigenous Peoples' Day and its coverage in schools, we spoke with Dr. Emma Humphries, Chief Education Officer at iCivics; Maria Marable-Bunch, associate director of museum learning and programs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian; and David O’Connor, American Indian studies consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Teaching Indigenous Peoples' Day

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

HMH: How do schools typically teach what happened after the first interactions between the indigenous population and the European explorers? David, can you speak to how it is taught and then maybe how it should be taught?

David O’Connor: When I look at it from a standpoint of how it is implemented in school districts or discussed in classrooms, one thing I try to encourage our educators to do is to recognize the accomplishments of Indigenous people, communities, and nations and many of the other things that Native people have brought forth and continue to create. A lot of times, we look at it from a historical lens when discussing Native people, but it’s important to especially look at it from the lens of who Native people are today as well. In the professional development opportunities I offer, the discussion around contemporary Native issues and topics is always part of trainings.

Some schools I work with have individuals who really go above and beyond teaching this content with their students. Many of these individuals want to make sure that it's taught in the right way, or in a good way, making sure that they are providing their students with learning opportunities and having multiple perspectives addressed or discussed. For others, especially if they have limited knowledge or background in this content, it can be a challenge. In many instances, it's a lot of new educational content for those individuals who are providing education to our students in our state [Wisconsin] or elsewhere. Wisconsin is a local-control state, which means that decisions about curriculum, standards, and instruction are made at the local level or by the school board.

HMH: Speaking of resources in this age of remote learning, do you have suggestions for content, or ways in which teachers can incorporate this important information into today's classrooms?

Maria Marable-Bunch: Yes. I'm going to speak to you a little bit about what the National Museum of the American Indian has been doing. About two years ago, we launched a national education initiative framework called Native Knowledge 360° Essential Understandings. Building on the 10 themes of the National Council for the Social Studies' national curriculum standards, the NMAI's Essential Understandings reveal key concepts about the rich and diverse cultures, histories, and contemporary lives of Native Peoples. These concepts reflect a multitude of untold stories about American Indians that can deepen and expand the teaching of history, geography, civics, economics, science, engineering, and other subject areas about American Indians. It was created specifically to begin to change the narrative of the stories around the history and culture of Native Americans, and we developed a series of online web resources that teachers can access.

The key behind what we were trying to do is to start to dispel the myth that Native American histories ended in the 1900s, that Native Americans don't exist today, or that all that ever happened to them is long ago. And so, with this new resource that we're providing online, not only do we talk about the history, but we also want to talk about the contemporary. When teachers access this information, they will hear the voices of contemporary Native Americans talking about themselves, talking about their community and the importance of their history.

To introduce educators to this web resource, we offer a special week-long summer institute that draws teachers from across the country, Native and non-Native. Before the pandemic, when we were able to travel, my staff went all over the country engaging teachers in programs and informing them about the history of Native Americans and the importance and the impact of the history on our country—not only the past, but also what we're doing today. Due to the pandemic, we now offer these teacher development programs virtually, and they reach far more teachers beyond what we were able to do in person.

We're also offering a series of distance learning programs for students. We are working closely with programs like Skype in the Classroom, and we're able to get information out to students and teachers through collaborations very much like that.

The other very important element about the resources we create is that we develop them with the input of the tribal community. They have a say about what we're putting together, what we are providing. They are in many of the video clips that we include with the resources, so they hear directly from Native voices about themselves, and that's been a very attractive component of the resource. That then says that it is authentic and real, and teachers look for that.

It’s important to especially look at it from the lens of who Native people are today.

David O'Connor

American Indian Studies Consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

HMH: Some teachers may not feel like they're the content expert to frame the conversation in an appropriate, sensitive, caring, and thoughtful way. Are there any questions or concerns that you've heard from teachers to frame it the right way? Are there other issues at play that teachers could really benefit from?

Dr. Emma Humphries: As teachers this year, if you're teaching virtually in particular, it takes a lot of courage to have any uncomfortable conversation. And even if you're comfortable, it doesn't mean some folks overhearing at home aren’t taking a comment out of context.

The first thing I suggest would be to just communicate with parents and guardians and let them know your plans. If you live in one of the 14 states or the District of Columbia, where Indigenous Peoples’ Day is officially recognized, you have that as some sort of shelter to say, "Our state has made this decision, and so I'm going to teach it." I live in Georgia, I'm from Florida. Neither state recognizes it—they don't really recognize Columbus Day either, to be fair. But they don't recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day. I would therefore send a letter to parents letting them know that we're going to talk about it and that we're going to treat it—and this is sort of my second pedagogical piece of advice—as an authentic inquiry activity.

I don't claim to be an expert on this content area. That's precisely why I asked David and Maria to join us. I am comfortable talking about controversial topics, but for me to cover this in the class with students—it would be an authentic inquiry activity, for me and them. I would be learning alongside them. One really interesting thing to look at is, when did Columbus Day become a thing? And by the way, it wasn't that long ago. And then when did it start to be challenged? And the answer there is, almost immediately. So, when people say, "Well, Columbus Day is this big part of American culture"— it's really not. It's a fairly new thing. When was it enacted? Why? What reasons were given? These are things you can look up.

Another really interesting, authentic inquiry activity is to ask, whose land are we on? There's this great website called where you can just type in your zip code, and it zooms right in and labels the land. I can tell you, I'm in Glynn County, Georgia, on St. Simon's Island. I am on the land of the Yamassee, Muscogee Creek, and Timucua. I can put in my old address, I can put in where I grew up, I can put in where David is and see which nation’s land that is. And if you zoom out and look at the United States as a whole, you see this tapestry of colors, which makes so many points. One, I think most importantly is that it's not just one tribal history, one tribal culture. It's plural. And two, this place we call home was originally the home of so many other groups of people. And it still is today. It's not in the past.

Another suggestion for teachers: Don't be afraid to invite parents to have a conversation ahead of time, one-on-one, about your learning goals. And, if it's appropriate, bring them into the conversation in other ways. Particularly if they are Native peoples themselves, that would be amazing to invite them in either as a guest speaker or as a participant in the discussion.

HMH: Are teachers asking for specific tools and strategies for elementary, middle, or high school learners? How would you guide them as to what may be appropriate, what might be within the framework of how state standards are taught, and how much is too much—or how little is, frankly, too little?

MMB: We examine the big topics and themes that are currently being taught in curriculums about Native Americans. Not much—not much in curriculum and not a whole lot even to supplement the curriculum in the textbooks, and oftentimes it is either incorrect or just not the complete story. We provide resources that will fill the gap of little information or knowledge that teachers can draw from to incorporate into their school curriculum and classroom teaching. Teachers are eager to have access to reliable resources, as well as guidance on how to present Native American history and culture in a meaningful and accurate way. We offer curriculum resources for Grades 4 and up through high school, and the format of the materials can range everywhere from a simple lesson plan to maybe a lesson that can take place over several sessions. Components of the lessons include teacher instructions, student activities, documents images, videos of Native people sharing their stories vocabulary, and other resources to explore beyond the lesson. We are now getting requests from early childhood educators as well as parents who also seek reliable resources that are appropriate for young children.

DO: Most educators I come across really want to do the right thing. But sometimes they don't have a strong base content knowledge themselves, or their knowledge in this content area is very limited. And if they do have some knowledge—sometimes it can be skewed or distorted by stereotypes, biases, and myths, which is more harmful than good.

At the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, I have a program website that I oversee, that I update frequently. I post updated resources, materials, and other information around Native education and studies. But we also have a partnership where we collaborate with several other entities and created a website called Wisconsin First Nations. We curate resources and materials for educators broken down by grade level—Pre-K through Grade 2, Grades 3-5, Grades 6-8, and Grades 9-12. We try to make sure it's broken down by resource type, in terms of books or other materials, lesson plans, videos, field trips, and websites for educators to use in their teaching and learning on Wisconsin American Indian nations and tribal communities.

Don't be afraid to invite parents to have a conversation ahead of time, one-on-one, about your learning goals.

Dr. Emma Humphries

Chief Education Officer, iCivics

HMH: In social studies, vocabulary is so critical. And if we don't understand and respect the vocabulary used, then it changes the dialogue. It changes the story. Do you have any recommendations for how teachers can be thoughtful and conscious about vocabulary?

DO: When we look in our social studies curricula, either in districts in Wisconsin or elsewhere in the U.S., in general, in many instances, the teaching of U.S. history has a facing-West narrative. But what about the facing East perspective as a Native person? For me, I'm always trying to be real crystal clear when I talk with educators—it's Native histories, and not Native history, singular. There are Native cultures, and not Native culture. And so, I try to always expand on that a little bit in terms of ways to understand that how you include these stories or narratives is not just in social studies—you can do it in English language arts or other subject areas.

I always start off with a discussion about what does that concept mean? And I always feel like after we have that, everything else seems to just become easier. I do not mean easier in a sense that they all of a sudden know all this information and they are ready to delve deep into the content area, but I feel like they get more at ease about what they're going to be discussing throughout our time together.

One thing that I always consistently hear from educators is “proper terminology,” and I would say that's very surface level in terms of teaching and learning this content. I always try to explain to them, “We’ve got to move beyond that if you’re really going to delve into the multiple facets of this content.” But I understand that's what a lot of educators get hung up on—proper terminology. With that being said, however, I meet people where they’re at now, and not where they need to be. So, when I talk with our educators, I always try to reassure them that just like any terms that come out, there eventually will be different terminology. The different terminologies—such as Native American, American Indian, First Nations, Indigenous, Aboriginal—can be used interchangeably in teaching and learning. But I always tell educators to err on the side of using tribal affiliation, or to be nation-specific. For example, I'm Anishinaabe, and that hasn't changed, as this is what my ancestors have called ourselves for thousands of years and continue to do to this day.

I put it into historical context—for example, we have been Anishinaabe since before time immemorial. When the French first came amongst us, they start calling us Chippewa or Ojibwe. And then, when we started making treaties with the United States, we started becoming known by a particular band of Ojibwe or Chippewa. For example, my nation was once called La Pointe, and now today, we are known as the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. However, at the end of the day, I'm Anishinaabe, which is my preferred way of identifying myself. And this understanding is something I’ve learned from an elder a long time ago. And so, for me, I always try to tell our teachers and educators to be tribal nation-specific in their teaching and learning. I encourage them to start in teaching and learning about your tribal neighbors first. If they are teaching this content, I would rather have them learn about the people or Nations who live next door to them, than those people who live 1,000 miles away from them.

EH: Every topic is appropriate for young learners. We tend to say, "Oh, we'll cover that when they get to middle school or high school." But by then it’s too late. Whether it's government, history, tribal sovereignty, or tribal cultures and histories, we have to start young; kids can absolutely make sense of it and process it. But it's our job as educators, of course, to make it as accessible and relevant as possible. And so, in our field, in social studies education in particular, we're always dealing with the complex academic vocabulary of our discipline. It's one of the hindrances to teaching. It's what makes social studies a little bit more instructionally complex.

Kids can absolutely make sense of [civics] and process it. But it's our job as educators ... to make it as accessible and relevant as possible.

Dr. Emma Humphries

Chief Education Officer, iCivics

Sovereignty is a word that a lot of adults would struggle to define, and to make it relevant and accessible to a kindergartener or a first grader is important. It’s really just about power and control, so you can make it relevant by talking about body sovereignty—control over one’s own body. The concept of federalism, as another example, is really just about sharing. It's about sharing, and it's about power.

I'm a secondary educator, so I can't claim to be that kind of masterful teacher who can take these concepts and make them relevant to young learners. But I've seen it happen time and again. I'll be in a professional development session, like David, talking to teachers. For example, I'll be talking about the ratification debate and explaining how I might teach it to my middle or high school students. Then the elementary-level teachers break into small groups, and five minutes later, they have these brilliant ideas for making these complex, dry, abstract concepts truly relevant and accessible to young learners.

HMH: Do you feel that a topic as important as this, Indigenous Peoples' Day, may not get the exposure that it needs to get in light of what's going on in our country?

EH: I guarantee you that it won't. It's a shame, and this is true for so many social studies topics. As a parent of an elementary school student, I'm just assuming that I'm her social studies teacher this year. She has a magnificent teacher who is masterfully conducting 100% virtual learning with her class. But it’s all literacy and math. I can’t begrudge them—they're doing everything they can to make up for lost instructional time. So, I tell my friends, I tell anyone I encounter, "If you have elementary school children, assume you are their social studies teacher." And whether it's teaching about Indigenous Peoples' Day, whether it's teaching about the Centennial of the 19th Amendment, or the census, or the presidential election, it's going to have to be taught in the home. There's going to be so much less instructional time for social studies, particularly for those younger grades.

DO: What I always tell educators is that this content shouldn't just be included in one day of the year, or in a one-to-two-week unit. I would encourage them to integrate it or infuse it throughout their curriculum at different parts of the year. So, using National Native American Heritage Month as an example, or Indigenous Peoples' Day—it should be extended beyond those days or the month. This content should be part of your curriculum, where you're having these conversations about how Native people impacted this state. For example, it’s just as important to have these conversations in March or May, just as it is on Indigenous Peoples' Day, or November with Native American Heritage Month.

MMB: As a museum educator and particularly at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Native American story is told every day and in a variety of formats that inform a broad range of our audiences. For example, this school year we introduced a new virtual program for students, Youth in Action: Conversations About Our Future. Offered monthly, this program engages young Native activists and changemakers from across the Western Hemisphere working toward equity and social justice for Indigenous peoples. This Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the topic of discussion is “Mascots, Monuments, and Memorialization.” Students who participate in this webinar will hear from young Native activists who are propelling this conversation forward and addressing the tension between history, memory, and the current movements happening across America. These discussions encourage students and educators to explore these issues across subject areas and throughout the year.

HMH: Do you have any other recommendations for ways to bring relevance to your classroom?

EH: I would say that teaching any sort of current controversial topic is a best practice. Bring those topics in! That said, I would hesitate to encourage anyone to frame the topics as debates. Debate assumes two opposing sides where the goal is not to come to a shared understanding but to win. Then if you have students in the classroom who are Indigenous Americans, it could easily become offensive and feel like an attack on their identity and on their personhood, especially if someone's arguing the side of honoring Columbus Day. Be careful there. But look at the reasons why it was federally enacted. If nothing else, this is such a brilliant lesson in federalism. Now I hope that teachers will try to learn more about America's history and present day.

I should say personally, I would rather honor and celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but if you read about why they wanted to celebrate Columbus Day, there's actually some really beautiful reasons in there about celebrating our country's diversity and immigrant culture. It really wasn't about honoring Columbus. But they named it Columbus Day, and so it sure does sound like that. And here we are today going, why are we celebrating this person? If you know the true history, this is problematic. I'm always going to go back to authentic inquiry. I'm always going to go back to classroom discussion, probably not debate on this one.

DO: Very well said, Emma. But just to add to what you said, one of the things that I always talk about with our colleagues in the state is what you just said right there, is both those perspectives. And how to have an honest dialogue with each other about what those perspectives mean, or where they come from. Like I said, the debate piece—some folks go for that route. That's not my style either. Mine is to lay out different perspectives for folks to make that choice of what they firmly believe in or will be exploring.

A lot of times in schools, what I always see—or try to have our teachers shy away from—is that a lot of times they have a firm belief that maybe teaching about foods, festivities, heroes, and holidays is the way to go. My response is, “Okay, we'll start there then” but expand to include teaching culturally. And when I say teaching culturally, they become a guide with their students, meaning that they are learning along the way with them.

Having a clear understanding about teaching about cultures versus teaching culturally is critical, especially in this day and age. That goes hand-in-hand with our equity work that we should be doing with our students every single day, which is very important work.

MMB: The goal that I wish to see happen in the classroom is that educators are provided with the tools and skills to tell the “whole American story” through multiple perspectives that are inclusive and respectful of other cultures. That allows students to know who they are, how they are connected to others, and how the world is shaped by this.

HMH: We just can't thank you both enough. What we tend to see, or hear, or worry about is teachers’ level of uncomfortableness with teaching controversies, or areas in which they don't personally feel a sense of expertise. And we think conversations such as this, remind us to say, “It's not about the teachers’ comfort level, but it's about the student comfort level.” Thank you so much, David. And thank you, Emma and Maria.

DO: In Ojibwe, we don’t have a word or a way to say “goodbye.” As we say, “giga-waabamin minawaa,” which means, “I’ll see you again” or “I’ll see you soon.” It has been shared with me. We don't have a word for goodbye because goodbye is forever.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Learn more about HMH Social Studies, which presents the rich, endlessly inventive story of our world, challenging students to dig deep into the past.

Explore our article on the C3 Standards to read about connecting social studies to students' daily life.

This blog, originally published in 2020, has been updated for 2022.

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