One of the staples of our fall curriculum is Christopher Columbus. After all, Columbus was a historical figure whom we were all taught to love because without him, we would not have America–and he had cool wooden ships that we could build and put into bottles! However, by now, we all know that Columbus and his legacy leave much deeper implications than just “discovering America.” I mean, just think of that phrase for a moment. Was America lost prior to 1492? And what did he find? New York? Well, following with some of our previous work on Rethinking Columbus, this week’s post will focus on recent scholarship of Columbus’s voyage, what the Americas were like, and how we can disburse this information more appropriately to our students.
Charles C. Mann’s Before Columbus: the Americas of 1491 is a book I highly recommend educators take a few minutes to review. (This book is actually a condensed version of Mann’s other book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and is aimed particularly at students). In this book, most appropriate for grades seven and above, Mann describes what the Americas (North and South America) were like before the arrival of Columbus’s first voyage in 1492. He discusses indigenous culture and the advances of Native American civilizations. He also discusses other aspects of Columbus’s arrival such as the Columbian exchange, or the idea of cultural, material, or germ exchange between indigenous and European cultures.
Why is this book different than most other books that teach students about Columbus? Well, Mann does not shy away from the fact that Columbus’s arrival was detrimental to indigenous culture with many regards. He discusses how European disease such as smallpox devastated the indigenous population. He also shies away from the idea that native peoples were desolate cultures that awaited European arrival for innovation. He describes how these cultures were indeed advanced and just how they shaped the American landscape prior to the arrival of Europeans.
As we begin to reconfigure what Columbus really means to us in scholarship, it is time that we start to pass on this knowledge to our younger students, especially those of a Hispanic background or an interest in Hispanic culture. Why? Well, without Columbus, many scholars would argue Hispanic culture, a culture that is rich in its mixture of Native American as well as European and African influence, would not exist. While that is likely true, older methods of teaching about Columbus reinforce racist stereotypes that still linger today. Teaching about Columbus and his voyage from the perspective Mann has set forth allows us to push away old stereotypes about lazy, backward, savage indigenous populations, and it allows us to examine the culture that many of our students embrace.
I certainly hope you check this book out and consider using it in your classroom this fall.
Until Next Time,