Since the first American history textbook was written, there has been—still is—a systematic and effective cover-up locked into place that perpetuates myths and fallacies about Christopher Columbus and his voyages.
Internationally (except perhaps in Spain and Italy), Columbus is recognized as an instigator of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and he set in motion one of the largest intentional ethnic cleansing efforts known in history—also one of the least known.
By some accounts, over 95 million indigenous peoples throughout the Western hemisphere were enslaved, mutilated, and massacred. Go down to your local public school and peruse the American history section, and tell me if there has been any formal accountability for this American holocaust. Columbus, Cortez, Father Junipero Serra, and hundreds of others are still celebrated as our country’s brave nautical explorers and finest heroes, not as perpetrators of crimes against humanity.
Obviously, Columbus’s atrocities are rarely discussed in the public school system. Recently, Roberta Weighill, Chumash, shared that her third grade son disagreed with his teacher about the Columbus discovery story and added that he knew Columbus to be responsible for the deaths of many Native people. The public teacher corrected him: “No. Columbus was just a slave trader.” Hmmm. Just a slave trader? Oh, is that all?
On October 12, 1492, Columbus wrote in his journal:
“They should be good servants … I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses.” These captives were later paraded through the streets of Barcelona and Seville when Columbus returned to Spain.”
Soon, there was evidence showing that this was fast becoming a profitable business. But did these savages perhaps deserve to go into bondage and slavery? Here is Columbus’s description:
“They are artless and generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but him who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts.”
Columbus very soon seized 1,200 Taino Natives from the island of Hispaniola, tearing families apart by abduction and killing the ones that resisted going. Hundreds died on board Columbus’s slave ships.
Being the nice guy that history would like us to believe, Columbus felt required to at least inform the natives of the terms by which they would be treated from now on in the “New World” :
“I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us…”
(Ask yourself how many Taino people understood what Columbus was saying.)
Within four years of Columbus’ arrival on Hispaniola, his men had killed or exported one-third of the original Indian population of 300,000.
The history of Columbus Day has been as erratic as Christopher Columbus himself. Columbus Day was celebrated as a federal holiday in the U.S. starting in 1971. Then it was terminated as a national holiday in the 1990s. However, on October 9, 2002, President George W. Bush (why are we not surprised?) issued a presidential proclamation declaring that in honor of “Columbus’ bold expedition [and] pioneering achievements … the flag of the United States [shall] be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of Christopher Columbus.”
Six years later, On Oct 11, 2008, Indigenous Peoples Day was established as the new holiday replacing Columbus Day. How often do your children bring notices home from school on that? And what does it say on your calendar?
So why is there this instance of celebrating such a horrible person in history? Is there an Adolf Hitler day? There are significant similarities: ethnic cleansing, slavery, concentration camps, and annihilation.
So here we are in 2010, where there is still an effort to “erase” Native people not only literally but historically, and replace them with watered down, romanticized images. “As a student in the public school district, I’ve noticed that my teachers have been leaving gaps in their teachings,” said 12-year-old Starr GreenSky, a Native American Student in the Santa Barbara School District. “For instance, my teachers have told me that a whole nation, filled by tribes, inhabited a continent. Well if that’s true, then why are there only two-to-three Native American children at my school out of the hundreds? What happened to all of us?” Turn on your television and check out the commercials and imagery that saturate prime time hours around this time and through Thanksgiving. Teri Di, long time Native rights activist, states:
“People are oblivious that negative stereotypes of Native people and the myth of Columbus and colonizers as “hero” are strategic as product placement. I would come across recipes for children to make ‘Columbus fruit boats bowls’ to ‘commemorate’ ‘Columbus Day’ in a Fisher Price cookbook for young children, ‘fun’ crafts for ‘Columbus Day’ in family oriented magazines written for all those homogeneous patriotic drones out there, and of course the list goes on and on. Every single grocery, department, big box, retail, book, warehouse, furniture, electronics store in ‘merica has a sale for ‘Columbus Day.’”
Pay attention to what your kids are being taught in their schools. Walk around the campus and check out the signs, the symbols, and the imagery being used in this twisted contorted “discovery” story. As George Orwell put it in his great dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, “He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past.”
Our schools have a responsibility to teach the truth, and we have a responsibility to demand it.
The American Indian Movement of Santa Barbara is organizing the 2nd Annual Challenging the Myth of Columbus Rally on Monday, October 11, 2010 at the Dolphin Fountain, the entryway to Stearn’s Wharf, at the base of State Street.
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Corine Fairbanks is with the American Indian Movement of Santa Barbara.