Teaching Fall Holidays: Indigenous Representation in North America
If your classes feature the histories or traditions of Thanksgiving, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or Columbus Day, make sure you create an inclusive classroom with these guidelines.

If you are including the history or traditions of several popular North American fall holidays in your curriculum this year, be sure to consider how you will incorporate multiple perspectives into your lesson plans. Many fall holidays are intended to represent or celebrate events in the histories of Native nations, and it is important that you communicate diverse and accurate viewpoints in any classes on these topics. Let’s take a look at a few holidays and traditions that are most commonly addressed in Outschool classes and go over how you can ensure appropriate representation in your classroom.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day (US, Canada, Global)

Seventeen states, Washington D.C., and over 130 cities celebrate or observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States on the second Monday of October. Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Canada is celebrated on June 21st, and the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (established by the United Nations) is observed on August 9th.

The U.S. holiday was created as a replacement for Columbus Day, and it is intended to recognize and honor Native communities and histories. Many Indigenous and/or Native American families and communities celebrate this holiday even if their state or city does not, and it should be included in classes that discuss holidays, celebrations, or current events.

If you would like to teach about Indigenous Peoples’ Day beyond the basics (its date of celebration and origins), be sure you have the appropriate teaching experience and are respectful of Indigenous histories and perspectives. Use a lesson on Indigenous Peoples’ Day to amplify Native voices and teach about modern Indigenous peoples in a positive, celebratory way – instead of only focusing on sensitive topics and harmful histories. Discussing why this holiday exists will inherently involve hard topics like colonization, but they shouldn’t be the only focus of your lesson. Lastly, make sure any crafts or activities are respectful of their Native origins and not harmful or appropriative.

Columbus Day (US)

While Columbus Day is currently still a federal holiday in the United States, it is not celebrated in all states and cities; it is considered a “regional holiday.” The holiday was created to commemorate the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492. When teaching about Columbus Day, be very intentional about including multiple perspectives on the historical events surrounding Christopher Columbus and the colonists’ arrival. The most important thing is to be honest with your learners and acknowledge that the traditional narrative about Columbus is historically inaccurate. Native perspectives have not often been truthfully represented when the story of American colonization is told.

To ensure that you are creating an inclusive classroom environment and teaching from an anti-bias perspective, avoid inaccuracies and language such as:

  • “Columbus discovered America.” Columbus arrived at a continent that Native nations had inhabited for thousands of years. In this regard, refrain from referring to North America as the “New World” or Columbus’s journey as simply an “adventure.”
  • “Columbus met the Native Americans.” Native peoples are diverse and unique. Identify Indigenous nations (tribes) by name whenever possible (for example, the Taíno nation).
  • “Native Americans were friendly/hostile/strange/amazed when…” Indigenous experiences are often simplified when approaching a historical event from a colonizer’s point of view. Instead, seek out accounts and histories written by Native authors to better understand the experience of the Indigenous peoples who lived during Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. See resource suggestions at the end of this post.

Thanksgiving (US, Canada)

Thanksgiving is a widely celebrated federal holiday in the U.S., occurring each year on the fourth Thursday of November. In Canada, it is celebrated on the 2nd Monday of October. In the U.S., it was established as a day to commemorate a supposed meal between English colonizers and the Wampanoag nation in 1621. The Canadian holiday has similar associated origin stories and traditions influenced by American Thanksgiving.

Today, many people in both countries gather on Thanksgiving to share a meal with family and friends. Unfortunately, much of the traditional “First Thanksgiving” narrative does not include Indigenous perspectives and perpetuates several historical inaccuracies.

Just as with Columbus Day, be honest with your learners about the different historical accounts of the interactions between European settlers and Indigenous peoples. Use resources created by Native authors or organizations, in addition to those created by other groups of people, to research your lesson plans and present a full picture of what Thanksgiving commemorates. Be aware that Native learners in your class may not celebrate Thanksgiving and that some Indigenous communities observe the National Day of Mourning instead.

Even if your class does not focus on the histories of Thanksgiving, avoid perpetuating common inaccuracies or stereotypes. Refrain from promoting the “shared feast” between “Pilgrims and Indians,” avoid showing images that depict Indigenous/Native peoples in harmful or inaccurate ways, and make sure your crafts and activities are appropriate (avoid costumes, “headdresses,” “Indian corn,” etc.).

Native American Heritage/History Month (US & Canada)

November is Native American Heritage/History Month in the United States, and June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada. If your classes focus on holidays or current events, these history months should be featured. These weeks are designated as a time to celebrate Indigenous/Native triumphs, accomplishments, and cultures! You can incorporate this into your lessons by highlighting contemporary Native peoples that are making a difference in the world, introducing Native resources or books to your learners, and amplifying Native voices.

Before delivering a lesson on the histories of these holidays or colonization, be sure you meet the Outschool standards for teaching experience and class content on marginalized groups. Additionally, include a detailed Parental Guidance statement in your description about the hard topics that will be taught in your class. To continue your learning, dive deeper into how you can accurately represent Indigenous perspectives in your teaching or explore the resources below.

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