Sunday, December 10, 2023

Here’s how local school districts address the deal about Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus and the eclipse. (Camille Flammarion/Astronomie Populaire circa 1879)
Christopher Columbus and the eclipse. (WYDaily/Camille Flammarion)

Monday is Columbus Day and while remembering the explorer is still a tradition, in the modern era it has to be done with greater historical context.

In certain areas around James City County, Columbus Day has been overtaken by Indigenous Peoples Day in a movement to replace the celebrations of the Italian explorer with a remembrance of indigenous cultures and how they were impacted, according to the Unitarian Universalist Association.

At schools in the Historic Triangle, the topic of Christopher Columbus is handled in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Education’s standards of learning and curriculum, said Eileen Cox, spokeswoman for Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools.

“There are various standards, across different grade levels, which have specific references to the terms Christopher Columbus, Columbus Day, American Indians and indigenous people,” Cox said in an email.

In WJCC Public Schools, students are first introduced to Columbus in second grade when they learn about the holiday as the celebration of “an explorer who paved the way for European exploration and colonization of the Americas,” said Steve Legawicc, social studies coordinator for the district, in an email.

“As early as [first] grade and continuing through high school, students in Williamsburg-James City County Schools study characteristics of pre-colonial American Indian cultures and American Indian people’s enduring importance in Virginia and the United States today,” Legawicc said.

This introduction is in congruent with the 2015 standards of learning from the Virginia Department of Education.

Following that, students in fourth grade Virginia Studies courses start to learn about Columbus mistakenly labeling Native Americans as “Indians” after thinking he had arrived in Asia. 

In fourth grade students also begin to study the characteristics of pre-colonial American Indian cultures and their longstanding significance in Virginia and the country as a whole. 

Students in middle and high school learn to discuss Columbus and the holiday from a variety of perspectives, Legawicc said. During this time, they learn about the movement in certain parts of the country to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples Day.

Sixth graders are also required to do a performance assessment on the impact of the arrival of Europeans on American Indian resources. 

Legawicc said the last direct mention of Columbus in the curriculum is in the freshman course World History:1500 to present. During the course, students learn about Columbus creating an empire that caused the decimation of the American Indian population.

Katherine Goff, spokeswoman for the York County School Division, said in York County students learn about a variety of aspects of U.S. history throughout their education. Starting with the standards of learning in second grade, students learn about various individuals from Columbus to Martin Luther King Jr.

“Students learn to compare and contrast people, places and events to understand various physical and cultural characteristics of communities as well as to understand why various holidays are celebrated in the United States,” Goff said.

When students learn about Virginia they are taught to understand the relationship between physical geography and the lives of current and past indigenous people. Just like in WJCC, students learn that Columbus originally misidentified Native Americans as Indians.

Students can also take courses that valuate European interactions with other civilizations and how their establishment decimated indigenous people.

In both YCSD and WJCC, students are taught to look at Columbus and the history of colonization from various angles but as Indigenous Peoples Day continues to spread, history books might begin to reflect a fuller picture of the explorer’s impact.

“It is very important that students in our division develop an appreciation of the growth and achievements of the United States and Europe,” Legawicc said. “But understand them in the context of the impact colonization and expansion, initiated by Christopher Columbus.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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