Friday, September 30, 2016

Teach The Truth About Columbus & Stop Celebrating Genocidal Maniac Day

Ella Sekatau, Naragansett tribal historian: "The truth is the truth is the truth. And it's just waiting to be discovered." From the documentary film Language of America: An Indian Story by Maine filmmaker Ben Levine.
If you've never had the experience of teaching the truth about the Columbus,  you might give it a try.

It can take a form as simple as a five year-old raising her hand during a Columbus Day presentation in Kindergarten to say, “My grammy says that Columbus was a really bad man.”

Or it could be reading and discussing the hair-raising first chapter of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. A rapist and slave trader who chopped off the hands of native people of the Caribbean islands who didn’t bring him gold fast enough, this well-documented genocidal maniac was just waiting for historian Zinn to reveal the sad truth: Columbus is not a person to be celebrated.

Now, if you’re a teacher emerging from the exhausting pace of the first month of school it’s hard to argue with a three day weekend in early October. When I taught high school social studies a Penobscot student asked me to help her organize an alternative to celebrating. With her parents and student volunteers she recruited, we convened a day of outdoor education, read some truth, and visited an extensive collection of native artifacts at Nowetah’s Indian Store and Museum in New Portland. (A Passamoquoddy artist who uses traditional porcupine quill methods to create beautiful baskets, Nowetah traveled and traded with native artists all over the continent to build her collection and she welcomes school visits. Check out the facebook page here.)
Maulian Smith, Penobscot leader of the Not Your Mascot, Maine Chapter campaign to retire the Skowhegan High School "Indian" mascot speaking at Indigenous People's Day, 2015.
In the intervening years Penobscot leaders have convened Indigenous People’s Day each October to further the effort of re-educating people, and last year the town of Belfast became the first in Maine to follow a growing national trend toward renaming the holiday.

One of the most popular tools for re-educating about Columbus is The People vs. Columbus ready-to-use curriculum materials available free on the Zinn Education Project’s website. I’ve used this tool many times with teenagers who enjoy the mock trial format and role play that explores, not only Columbus’ role, but that of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, the crew members of the ships that Spain sent, and the system of empire itself.

The related text Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years explains:
Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is a foundation of children's beliefs about society. Columbus is often a child's first lesson about encounters between different cultures and races. The murky legend of a brave adventurer tells children whose version of history to accept, and whose to ignore. It says nothing about the brutality of the European invasion of North America.

That text was banned by schools in Tucson, Arizona under legislation that abolished Mexican American Studies, a program targeted by conservative politicians. Despite numerous studies finding that native students and students of color are adversely affected when their history and culture is not taught, schools continue to serve powerful interests by suppressing the truth.
Photo credit: Rob Wilson from "Over 20 Arrested After Militarized Police Raid #NoDAPL Prayer Ceremony" Sep. 29, 2016 by Lauren McCauley,

How many of us are teaching about the coalition of native groups taking a stand against oil pipeline construction that in North Dakota that threatens the water supply for millions? The wisdom of indigenous people about how to live on the planet without crashing its life support systems is sorely needed as the potable water supply dwindles and record temperatures continue to climb. Why would we suppress their voices now?

Whichever tools you choose, and especially if you have a young audience, you could find the experience of reteaching Columbus exhilarating. Then, move on to reteach Thanksgiving!

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