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In honor of Columbus Day, A true people's history

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Rethinking Columbus: Towards a True People's History

PK
This past January, almost exactly 20 years after its publication, Tucson schools banned the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus. It was one of a number of books adopted by Tucson's celebrated Mexican American Studies program—a program long targeted by conservative Arizona politicians.

The school district sought to crush the Mexican American Studies program; our book itself was not the target, it just got caught in the crushing. Nonetheless, Tucson's—and Arizona's—attack on Mexican American Studies and Rethinking Columbus shares a common root: the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.

For years, I opened my 11th grade U.S. history classes by asking students, "What's the name of that guy they say discovered America?" A few students might object to the word "discover," but they all knew the fellow I was talking about. "Christopher Columbus!" several called out in unison.

"Right. So who did he find when he came here?" I asked. Usually, a few students would say "Indians," but I asked them to be specific: "Which nationality? What are their names?"

Silence.

In more than 30 years of teaching U.S. history and guest teaching in others' classes, I've never had a single student say "Taínos." So I ask them to think about that fact. "How do we explain that? We all know the name of the man who came here from Europe, but none of us knows the name of the people who were here first—and there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of them. Why haven't you heard of them?"

This ignorance is an artifact of historical silencing—rendering invisible the lives and stories of entire peoples. It's what educators began addressing in earnest 20 years ago, during plans for the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas, which at the time the Chicago Tribune boasted would be "the most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations." Native American and social justice activists, along with educators of conscience, pledged to interrupt the festivities.

In an interview with Barbara Miner, included in Rethinking Columbus, Suzan Shown Harjo of the Morning Star Institute, who is Creek and Cheyenne, said: "As Native American peoples in this red quarter of Mother Earth, we have no reason to celebrate an invasion that caused the demise of so many of our people, and is still causing destruction today." After all, Columbus did not merely "discover," he took over. He kidnapped Taínos, enslaved them—"Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold," Columbus wrote—and "punished" them by ordering that their hands be cut off or that they be chased down by vicious attack dogs, if they failed to deliver the quota of gold that Columbus demanded. One eyewitness accompanying Columbus wrote that it "did them great damage, for a dog is the equal of 10 men against the Indians."

Corporate textbooks and children's biographies of Columbus included none of this and were filled with misinformation and distortion. But the deeper problem was the subtext of the Columbus story: It's OK for big nations to bully small nations, for white people to dominate people of color, to celebrate the colonialists with no attention paid to the perspectives of the colonized, to view history solely from the standpoint of the "winners."

Rethinking Columbus was never just about Columbus. It was part of a broader movement to surface other stories that have been silenced or distorted in the mainstream curriculum: grassroots activism against slavery and racism, struggles of workers against owners, peace movements, the long road toward women’s liberation—everything that Howard Zinn dubbed "a people's history of the United States."

Which brings us back to Tucson: One of the most silent of the silenced stories in the curriculum is the history of Mexican Americans. Despite the fact that the U.S. war against Mexico led to Mexico "ceding"—at bayonet point—about half its country to the United States, this momentous event merits almost no mention in our textbooks. At best, it is taught merely as prologue to the Civil War.

Mexican Americans were central to building this country, but you wouldn't know it from our textbooks. They worked in the Arizona copper mines, albeit in an apartheid system where they were paid a "Mexican wage." In the 1880s, the majority of workers building the Texas and Mexican Railroad were Mexicans, and by 1900, the Southern Pacific Railroad had 4,500 Mexican workers in California alone.

They worked the railroad, and they worked for their rights. In 1903, Mexican and Japanese farmworkers united in Oxnard, California, to form the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. As Ronald Takaki notes in A Different Mirror, "For the first time in the history of California, two minority groups, feeling a solidarity based on class, had come together to form a union." They struck for higher pay, writing in a statement that "if the machines stop, the wealth of the valley stops, and likewise if the laborers are not given a decent wage, they too, must stop work and the whole people of this country suffer with them."

Nowhere was this rich history of exploitation and resistance being explored with more nuance, rigor, and sensitivity than in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program. Like Rethinking Columbus, Mexican American Studies teachers aimed to break the classroom silence about things that matter—about oppression and race and class and solidarity and organizing for a better world. Watch Precious Knowledge, the excellent film that offers an intimate look at this program—and chronicles the fearful, even ludicrous, attacks against it—and you'll get a sense of the enormous impact this "rethinking" curriculum had on students' lives.

This coming Monday, October 8th is the day set aside as Columbus Day. Let's commit ourselves to use this—and every so-called Columbus Day—to tell a fuller story of what Columbus's voyage meant for the world, and especially for the lives of the people who'd been living here for generations. And let’s push beyond "Columbus" to nurture a "people's history" curriculum—searching out those stories that help explain how this has become such a profoundly unequal world, but also how people have constantly sought greater justice. This is the work on which educators, parents, and students need to collaborate.

***

by on Oct. 3, 2012 at 9:26 AM
Replies (11-20):
radioheid
by Libertarian on Oct. 3, 2012 at 11:37 AM
1 mom liked this

 The original colonists numbered in the dozens, then hundreds. It took decades for the colonists' numbers to reach the thousands, and half of those were women and children.

I stand by what I said. If they wanted to keep this land, they should have fought harder. End of story. There was no rainbows & sunshine "let's share" hippie mentality even 150 years ago, let alone 250, or 500 years ago when the first explorers arrived. If no one had a flag raised and a ready militia on hand when you arrived somewhere new, you claimed it for your king. Once that land was claimed and ships began arriving with settlers, and those settlers began pushing further up and down the coast and further west, someone probably should have taken a stand and said "That's far enough!". BUT, that really didn't happen. They stayed small and simple, and they were wiped out because their land didn't mean enough for them to unify and rally.

I understand history, and I've stated it, as it really happened, in cold, hard FACT, without any feel-good distortion. We came, we conquered, they lost, and now their descendents want the conquerers' descendents to feel bad and "tell their story" as if it will change history. It won't change history---it will only give names to the conquered.

If Europeans hadn't colonized the Americas, somebody else eventually would have. The moment *any* explorer landed here and saw the vast forests, game and freshwater, and realized the oil, coal, gold and silver America was chock full of, the game would have been on, and with so little resistance from the native folks, it would have been just as easy to settle in. Columbus takes the "blame", but if not him, it would have been somebody else, eventually. Perhaps that explorer would have been Japanese or Egyptian or Indian. Who knows. The only thing I do know is that the end result would have been the same.

Quoting krysstizzle:

It definitely is not a "hate whitey" thing. 

It's a history thing. Yes, we learn about invasions and conquering nations, American included. Time lapse does mean something, of course. Something that happened 150 years ago is different than something that happened 2,000 years ago. 

This is not about apologizing, it is about acknowledging other players in history, about writing a history that is not written solely by the winner, as is usually the case. 

 

Yes, there were people scattered across the Americas when European explorers arrived. Yes, a lot of those people ended up dying of foreign diseases and warfare. Yes, I'm sure that sucked. But when you bring arrows to a gun & cannon fight, them's the breaks. Despite outnumbering the newcomers a thousand-to-one, they lost. Clearly they didn't want to keep this land bad enough. And I refuse to apologize for that. If anything, I hope modern Native Americans' ancestors apologized to them for letting the newbies roll in and take their land. 

Now this. This shows a lack of understanding of history, honestly. The rest of your reply was based on fact. This highlighted part is not. "Cleary they didn't want to keep this land bad enough" is a silly thing to say, when the situation is looked at as a whole. 

Quoting radioheid:

 Oh boy---another "Hate Whitey Day"!!! 

Sorry the native people couldn't hold their own when evil, wicked "white" people came along (if you consider olive and tan-skinned Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese to be "white", and that was the racial make-up of the original explorers), but command and conquer has been the way of the world since the dawn of civilization.

 I'm beyond sick of this modern American apology tour. We learn about the Romans conquering much of the known world, but there is no mention, nor drive for mention, of the atrocities the Romans committed along the way. Same goes for the Mongols, and further back, the Kurgans. They swept in, wiped out or enslaved the indigenous folks they found, history was written, and the world continued turning. Nobody apologized. And nobody *should*.

Yes, there were people scattered across the Americas when European explorers arrived. Yes, a lot of those people ended up dying of foreign diseases and warfare. Yes, I'm sure that sucked. But when you bring arrows to a gun & cannon fight, them's the breaks. Despite outnumbering the newcomers a thousand-to-one, they lost. Clearly they didn't want to keep this land bad enough. And I refuse to apologize for that. If anything, I hope modern Native Americans' ancestors apologized to them for letting the newbies roll in and take their land. 

And the most unpopular opinion of the day goes to...*drum-roll*...RADIOHEID!!!


 


"Roger that. Over."

R   A   D    I    O    H    E    I    D

OttawaHoney
by on Oct. 3, 2012 at 11:49 AM
Oh for fucks sake.
I can't believe some of the responses.



Quoting radioheid:

 Oh boy---another "Hate Whitey Day"!!! 


Sorry the native people couldn't hold their own when evil, wicked "white" people came along (if you consider olive and tan-skinned Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese to be "white", and that was the racial make-up of the original explorers), but command and conquer has been the way of the world since the dawn of civilization.


 I'm beyond sick of this modern American apology tour. We learn about the Romans conquering much of the known world, but there is no mention, nor drive for mention, of the atrocities the Romans committed along the way. Same goes for the Mongols, and further back, the Kurgans. They swept in, wiped out or enslaved the indigenous folks they found, history was written, and the world continued turning. Nobody apologized. And nobody *should*.


Yes, there were people scattered across the Americas when European explorers arrived. Yes, a lot of those people ended up dying of foreign diseases and warfare. Yes, I'm sure that sucked. But when you bring arrows to a gun & cannon fight, them's the breaks. Despite outnumbering the newcomers a thousand-to-one, they lost. Clearly they didn't want to keep this land bad enough. And I refuse to apologize for that. If anything, I hope modern Native Americans' ancestors apologized to them for letting the newbies roll in and take their land. 


And the most unpopular opinion of the day goes to...*drum-roll*...RADIOHEID!!!


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rotPferd
by Silver Member on Oct. 3, 2012 at 12:16 PM
1 mom liked this

 I agree with radiohead. It's over and done with and if it wasn't Columbus, it woulda been someone else to demonize.

rotPferd
by Silver Member on Oct. 3, 2012 at 12:22 PM

 one of my fav quotes...

"You won, alright? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. That's what Ceasar did. He's not going around saying 'I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it'. The history of the world is not about making friends. You had better weapons and you massacred them. End of story."  Spike

SuperChicken
by on Oct. 3, 2012 at 12:51 PM
3 moms liked this

I don't see that listening to the stories of the people who were here before Europeans means one has to "apologize" or feel bad about Europeans overpowering those people.  It simply rounds out the story and gives a more complete picture of the times.  

And it isn't the only time that the original people want to speak up and be heard.  Ever studied British History?   They were conquered, well about a million times, lol.  Everyone wanted a piece.   And each time the people being conquered wanted to be heard, to save their culture, to hold on to their languages.  People who believed, no KNEW, that being conquered did not mean they did not count or were unworthy.     And that's one small Island nation.   Of course in a land as huge as ours, there is going to be more than one story.

squeekers
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by Bronze Member on Oct. 3, 2012 at 12:55 PM

 The Indians discovered Columbus first.

punky3175
by on Oct. 3, 2012 at 1:27 PM
Thanks for sharing this story. I didn't take it as an 'apology' at all but more for a greater understanding of history. Yes - conquering is what happens but it doesn't mean we shouldn't get both sides of the story.
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katzmeow726
by Platinum Member on Oct. 3, 2012 at 1:30 PM

Wasn't that the thanksgiving episode?  I loved that one...and spike, always loved spike lol

Quoting rotPferd:

 one of my fav quotes...


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Sekirei
by Nari Trickster on Oct. 3, 2012 at 1:30 PM
1 mom liked this

krysstizzle
by on Oct. 3, 2012 at 1:38 PM

And I still stand by what I said. This view point is valid only insofar as yes, conquering happens, and yes, the indigenous populations "lost". 

However, the rest shows lack of cultural understanding. 

I actually would like to have this discussion, but I have to finish up a report. So I'll come back. 

Have you read Guns, Germs, and Steel by any chance?

Quoting radioheid:

 The original colonists numbered in the dozens, then hundreds. It took decades for the colonists' numbers to reach the thousands, and half of those were women and children.

I stand by what I said. If they wanted to keep this land, they should have fought harder. End of story. There was no rainbows & sunshine "let's share" hippie mentality even 150 years ago, let alone 250, or 500 years ago when the first explorers arrived. If no one had a flag raised and a ready militia on hand when you arrived somewhere new, you claimed it for your king. Once that land was claimed and ships began arriving with settlers, and those settlers began pushing further up and down the coast and further west, someone probably should have taken a stand and said "That's far enough!". BUT, that really didn't happen. They stayed small and simple, and they were wiped out because their land didn't mean enough for them to unify and rally.

I understand history, and I've stated it, as it really happened, in cold, hard FACT, without any feel-good distortion. We came, we conquered, they lost, and now their descendents want the conquerers' descendents to feel bad and "tell their story" as if it will change history. It won't change history---it will only give names to the conquered.

If Europeans hadn't colonized the Americas, somebody else eventually would have. The moment *any* explorer landed here and saw the vast forests, game and freshwater, and realized the oil, coal, gold and silver America was chock full of, the game would have been on, and with so little resistance from the native folks, it would have been just as easy to settle in. Columbus takes the "blame", but if not him, it would have been somebody else, eventually. Perhaps that explorer would have been Japanese or Egyptian or Indian. Who knows. The only thing I do know is that the end result would have been the same.

Quoting krysstizzle:

It definitely is not a "hate whitey" thing. 

It's a history thing. Yes, we learn about invasions and conquering nations, American included. Time lapse does mean something, of course. Something that happened 150 years ago is different than something that happened 2,000 years ago. 

This is not about apologizing, it is about acknowledging other players in history, about writing a history that is not written solely by the winner, as is usually the case. 


Yes, there were people scattered across the Americas when European explorers arrived. Yes, a lot of those people ended up dying of foreign diseases and warfare. Yes, I'm sure that sucked. But when you bring arrows to a gun & cannon fight, them's the breaks. Despite outnumbering the newcomers a thousand-to-one, they lost. Clearly they didn't want to keep this land bad enough. And I refuse to apologize for that. If anything, I hope modern Native Americans' ancestors apologized to them for letting the newbies roll in and take their land. 

Now this. This shows a lack of understanding of history, honestly. The rest of your reply was based on fact. This highlighted part is not. "Cleary they didn't want to keep this land bad enough" is a silly thing to say, when the situation is looked at as a whole. 

Quoting radioheid:

 Oh boy---another "Hate Whitey Day"!!! 

Sorry the native people couldn't hold their own when evil, wicked "white" people came along (if you consider olive and tan-skinned Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese to be "white", and that was the racial make-up of the original explorers), but command and conquer has been the way of the world since the dawn of civilization.

 I'm beyond sick of this modern American apology tour. We learn about the Romans conquering much of the known world, but there is no mention, nor drive for mention, of the atrocities the Romans committed along the way. Same goes for the Mongols, and further back, the Kurgans. They swept in, wiped out or enslaved the indigenous folks they found, history was written, and the world continued turning. Nobody apologized. And nobody *should*.

Yes, there were people scattered across the Americas when European explorers arrived. Yes, a lot of those people ended up dying of foreign diseases and warfare. Yes, I'm sure that sucked. But when you bring arrows to a gun & cannon fight, them's the breaks. Despite outnumbering the newcomers a thousand-to-one, they lost. Clearly they didn't want to keep this land bad enough. And I refuse to apologize for that. If anything, I hope modern Native Americans' ancestors apologized to them for letting the newbies roll in and take their land. 

And the most unpopular opinion of the day goes to...*drum-roll*...RADIOHEID!!!


 


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