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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 (31-40):
anime.princess
by Member on Oct. 3, 2012 at 8:11 PM


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),

In the strict sense of the word, they are white.  The Caucasoid race is not just Scandinavian and Celtics.  It also includes the Berbers (North Africans), Mediterraneans (Iberics, Italians, French), Balkans (Greeks, Turks), Slavs (Polish, Russians), and Middle Easterns...you know, "brown" people.  

krysstizzle
by on Oct. 3, 2012 at 8:19 PM

Did you even read the actual article I posted? I keep getting the impression from a couple of posters that the article wasn't even actually read. 

It has absolutely nothing to do with "people hating the white man". At all. It's about history and the silencing of the stories. 

Quoting kailu1835:

Are we currently wiping out a civilization in order to take over?  No?

We cannot change what was.  I get learning from it and moving on, but sitting there wallowing about how horrible the white man was (when it was Italians and Spaniards, not the English) does nothing but tell us how much people hate the white man.

Quoting krysstizzle:

This is not about guilt. This is about recognizing the stories from the "other" side.

Just because colonization and genocide have happened throughout history, does NOT mean that we should just settle for the lowest denominator of human action. We should strive for better, which can be accomplished by listening to the other side, by recognizing what has happened, by allowing the stories of the oppressed to be told.

Quoting kailu1835:

I refuse to be guilty about something that happened before any of us where ever here and that we had no control over.  A nation was conquored.  Whoppity doo da.  Every single country in the world, was, at one time, invaded and conquored by a stronger country.  It is the big circle of life.




6AM
by on Oct. 3, 2012 at 8:23 PM

Columbus was an asshole anyway. The way he treated the natives who were already here was reprehensible. I hate Columbus and fail to see why not being able to take directions makes him a hero.

dustinsmom1
by JENN on Oct. 3, 2012 at 8:54 PM
1 mom liked this

 *eye roll* Yes because we all know that all non-white peoples problems and woes stem directly from White folks. smdh

Quoting AdrianneHill:

Actually, if some white people just sat and listened maybe no one would have to be divided. You could listen while other people talked and you could try to understand where they're coming from and then everyone could continue on with their lives.
But refusing to even listen because you're sure someone is just trying to make you feel guilty doesn't do much in keeping people united. You just won't hear or see the divisions until they are so angry, they're knocking the front doors down and burning the manor to the ground. Not a new story at all

 

Lizardannie1966
by on Oct. 3, 2012 at 9:02 PM
1 mom liked this

Actually, you're not alone. There are many coming forward and have been, questioning why we pay any type of homage to this man.

Quoting 6AM:

Columbus was an asshole anyway. The way he treated the natives who were already here was reprehensible. I hate Columbus and fail to see why not being able to take directions makes him a hero.


Lizardannie1966
by on Oct. 3, 2012 at 9:05 PM

I'm very upset with Tom Horne and crew who've put this book banning in place in my state. They started doing this back when SB1070 was being argued--a lack of timing or not?--and some books being suggested for banning in particular added to the anger, fury and assessment that people in Arizona were racist buffoons.

krysstizzle
by on Oct. 3, 2012 at 9:07 PM
1 mom liked this

I think the book banning was ridiculous political posturing. I really can't see any other reason for it. And I agree, it was a terrible move. Both in general and in principle, and because it just caused so much anger. 


Quoting Lizardannie1966:

I'm very upset with Tom Horne and crew who've put this book banning in place in my state. They started doing this back when SB1070 was being argued--a lack of timing or not?--and some books being suggested for banning in particular added to the anger, fury and assessment that people in Arizona were racist buffoons.


Lizardannie1966
by on Oct. 3, 2012 at 9:12 PM

I couldn't agree more.

And don't forget the timing of the start to these bans. My husband and I would watch news coverage on this and think--really? NOW? You're doing this now? *sigh @@

It was complete political posturing which angers me more. Screw the kids from gaining some knowledge and expanding their educational horizons. :(

Quoting krysstizzle:

I think the book banning was ridiculous political posturing. I really can't see any other reason for it. And I agree, it was a terrible move. Both in general and in principle, and because it just caused so much anger. 


Quoting Lizardannie1966:

I'm very upset with Tom Horne and crew who've put this book banning in place in my state. They started doing this back when SB1070 was being argued--a lack of timing or not?--and some books being suggested for banning in particular added to the anger, fury and assessment that people in Arizona were racist buffoons.



AdrianneHill
by Platinum Member on Oct. 3, 2012 at 9:24 PM
Kids can't expand their horizons, that would be unfair and hateful to the white man.
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batmansgirl
by Bronze Member on Oct. 3, 2012 at 10:07 PM

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8138884/First-Americans-reached-Europe-five-centuries-before-Columbus-voyages.html

First Americans 'reached Europe five centuries before Columbus voyages'

The first Americans reached Europe five centuries before Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World, according to claims made by a Spanish university team.

Norse sagas suggest the Vikings discovered the Americas centuries before Columbus landed on San Salvador in 1492 Photo: CORBIS

Scientists tracing the genetic origins of an Icelandic family believe the first American arrived in Europe around the 10th century, a full five hundred years before Columbus set off on his first voyage of discovery in 1492.

Norse sagas suggest the Vikings discovered the Americas centuries before Columbus and the latest data seems to support the hypothesis that they may have brought American Indians back with them to northern Europe.

Research indicates that a woman from the North American continent probably arrived in Iceland some time around 1000AD leaving behind genes that are reflected in about 80 Icelanders today.

Investigators discovered the genes could be traced to common ancestors in the south of Iceland, near the Vatnaj Kull glacier in around 1710 ruling out initial theories that they may have arrived via Asia.

"As the island was practically isolated from the 10th century onwards, the most probable hypothesis is that these genes correspond to an Amerindian woman who was taken from America by the Vikings some time around the year 1000," Carles Lalueza-Fox, of the Pompeu Fabra university in Spain, said.

A Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, in the eastern Canadian region of Terranova, is thought to date to the 11th century.

Researchers said they would keep trying to determine when the Amerindian genes first arrived in Iceland and would seek to link them to burial remains in the Americas.

The genetic research, made public by Spain's Centre for Scientific Research, was due to be published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

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