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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 (41-50):
viv212
by Gold Member on Oct. 3, 2012 at 11:04 PM
I remember being in elementary school and question the whole "discover" thing. This man is given more credit then he deserves. He was an explorer, that's all.

I am glad when schools down here in So Cal did away with that no school on Colombus Day and instead gave a no school day for Cesar Chavez Day.

Whether or not there's an apology, we Americans tend to hear in school about all the groups of people who were oppressed but the teachings fail to tell the children about the oppression at the hands of "America".
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Lurion
by Member on Oct. 3, 2012 at 11:09 PM
1 mom liked this

Haha I remind my children of this before sending them off  to school every Columbus Day.

Their teachers don't seem to appreciate the history lesson. 

AdrianneHill
by Platinum Member on Oct. 3, 2012 at 11:46 PM
I just read the Norse thing where they not only settled but took natives home with them when they had to leave Newfoundland after the temperature drop killed the colony. Why they never thought of going further south to settle I'll never know?
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OneToughMami
by on Oct. 4, 2012 at 12:53 AM
We usually talk about Taino Indians being my grandfather is Taino, Spanish, and Irish because why the fuck wouldn't the Irish come to Puerto Rico right lol
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AdrianneHill
by Platinum Member on Oct. 4, 2012 at 2:04 AM
I honestly thought that all of the Caribe Indians that he met in the Bahamas and Cuba died out quickly from disease, slavery, and general being treated like crap. I thought most of the Cuban people are from Europeans, slaves, and very few Indians from south America
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diospira
by Bronze Member on Oct. 4, 2012 at 8:41 AM


Quoting Lurion:

Haha I remind my children of this before sending them off  to school every Columbus Day.

Their teachers don't seem to appreciate the history lesson. 

That´s why I home-school. 

I wouldn´t trust them to truly educate my girl, just to indoctrinate her. Case in point, some of the hostile responses to this post.

We used this excellent book about the world of the Americas before Columbus.

1491-cover.jpg





youre the indians of the 21st century

mikiemom
by Ruby Member on Oct. 4, 2012 at 8:53 AM

all of this is very true, I am bookmarking for facebook on Monday, Columbus Day should not be a holiday - that man should not be celebrated what-so-ever. Of course he is not fully responsible for the carnage that followed his so-called discovery.

Lurion
by Member on Oct. 4, 2012 at 8:56 AM
1 mom liked this

I applaud those that home school, although I don't have the gift to be able to do that personally. 

I do think it's good for them to be exposed to and interact with people of many different points of view. They get an earful at home of how I see the world and I believe that is their strongest influence . We love to have rousing conversations around the dinner table about things they learn at school, how other children (and their parents) see the world, and how to discuss these differences respectfully and fully considering the other person's views. 

Quoting diospira:


Quoting Lurion:

Haha I remind my children of this before sending them off  to school every Columbus Day.

Their teachers don't seem to appreciate the history lesson. 

That´s why I home-school. 

I wouldn´t trust them to truly educate my girl, just to indoctrinate her. Case in point, some of the hostile responses to this post.

We used this excellent book about the world of the Americas before Columbus.

1491-cover.jpg





youre the indians of the 21st century


diospira
by Bronze Member on Oct. 4, 2012 at 9:16 AM
1 mom liked this


Quoting Lurion:

I applaud those that home school, although I don't have the gift to be able to do that personally. 

I do think it's good for them to be exposed to and interact with people of many different points of view. They get an earful at home of how I see the world and I believe that is their strongest influence . We love to have rousing conversations around the dinner table about things they learn at school, how other children (and their parents) see the world, and how to discuss these differences respectfully and fully considering the other person's views. 

Quoting diospira:


Quoting Lurion:

Haha I remind my children of this before sending them off  to school every Columbus Day.

Their teachers don't seem to appreciate the history lesson. 

That´s why I home-school. 

I wouldn´t trust them to truly educate my girl, just to indoctrinate her. Case in point, some of the hostile responses to this post.

We used this excellent book about the world of the Americas before Columbus.

1491-cover.jpg





youre the indians of the 21st century


I think that sounds great! 

Even though we homeschool, we have plenty of opportunity to do the same. I agree that the family can and should be the strongest influence.

And yes, we can teach respect for those we may not agree with and also try to see things from their perspective. ( There again, not too evident on this post.)


krysstizzle
by on Oct. 4, 2012 at 10:09 AM

That is a fantastic book! I found it very informative.

Have you read Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond? It's a really great view of how and why certain populations were colonized and why certain ones were colonizers. Very expansive, and a good read. 


Quoting diospira:


Quoting Lurion:

Haha I remind my children of this before sending them off  to school every Columbus Day.

Their teachers don't seem to appreciate the history lesson. 

That´s why I home-school. 

I wouldn´t trust them to truly educate my girl, just to indoctrinate her. Case in point, some of the hostile responses to this post.

We used this excellent book about the world of the Americas before Columbus.

1491-cover.jpg





youre the indians of the 21st century


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