In just a few weeks, Monday October 13th will be observed as Columbus Day. Banks will close, stores will have special sales, and many students will learn about how Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas. Yet, this type of observance only tells one part or version of the Columbus narrative, leaving out significant parts of a violent and traumatic period in the history of the Americas. Christopher Columbus is one of the first historical figures many of our students learn about. The way he’s presented sets an important precedent for how all historical narratives are taught, analyzed, and interpreted. Consider the following from Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools:
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 what 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?”
In more than 30 years of teaching U.S. history and guest teaching in others’ classes, I’ve never had a single student say “Tainos.” So I asked 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 a fact of historical silencing–rendering invisible the lives and stories of entire peoples.*
As you teach about exploration, conquest, and colonization this year, we hope you will consider what Bigelow suggests, that we “commit ourselves to use this–and every so called Columbus Day–to tell a fuller story of what Columbus’ 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.”*
Over the next few weeks we will be sharing more resources for how to teach about these topics. If you’re looking for teaching resources, the Rethinking Columbus publication by Rethinking Schools is a great place to start. You can also check out our free guide “Rethinking Columbus” for more lesson plans and activities. We also have a series of lesson plans on teaching about the Spanish Conquest. Last, below, I’ve shared our past posts with ideas and resources for how to rethink conquest and colonization in our classrooms. Feel free to share any thoughts or ideas you have in the comment section!
Don’t forget to comment on any post by September 26th to be entered in our giveaway for a copy of La Línea by Ann Jaramillo!
* Quotes from Bill Bigelow taken from “Rethinking Columbus: Towards a True People’s History” published on Common Dreams