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Looking at Columbus Day through Native Eyes

October 12, 2010

Yesterday, students, faculty and the community members were invited to an event held on the GVSU campus called Rethinking Columbus. The event was organized by people from the local Native American community and was designed to get the audience to rethink their views on Columbus Day.

The event began with a short play written by Dee Ann Sherwood Bosworth who is the Director of Intercultural Training at GVSU. The was a re-interpretation of Columbus’s “arrival in the New World,” where he was greeted by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM).

In the play Columbus is asked for his passport and green card. Upon hearing that Columbus believes he is in India, the Native people tell him that he is lost and should just get back on his boat and leave. The play wove in aspects of the historical record of the genocide that was perpetrated against Indigenous people with the European conquest and how Native people have survived that history, most recently through the formation and work of the American Indian Movement.

After the play there was a panel discussion, consisting of Shannon Martin with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, Barry Phillips a Nottawasseppi Huron Potawatomi, Ben Williams with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and Scott Stable, a history professor at GVSU. The panel discussion was moderated by Levi Rickert.

Levi began by asking panelists what the “celebration” of Columbus Day means for Native people. Shannon Martin told the audience that the perpetuation of that history needs to be seriously reconsidered. “As Native people we need to have our own show and tell for how Native people have been treated throughout US history. One problem is that the burden of truth telling falls to the Native communities, since it is not honestly represented through the current education system.”

Barry Phillips responded to that question by saying there are a growing number of educators that want to teach history from a Native perspective, but they don’t know where to get information, so “we need to get that information to those who are teaching our children.”

Ben Williams said we need to seriously investigate the history of conquest and the meaning of Columbus Day. “It is appalling that Columbus is still being celebrated by groups like the Knights of Columbus.”

Levi asked Scott Stabler how Columbus Day even came about in the US It was a way to gain votes amongst the Italian community in some communities but did not become an official holiday until FDR made October 12 a national holiday in 1937. In 1971 the US Congress made Columbus Day the 2nd Monday of October in order to have a 3 day weekend.

The next question asked of the panelists was what are some of the alternatives to celebrating Columbus Day. Barry Phillips said, “Many of us believe it shouldn’t be celebrated at all.”  Shannon Martin stated, “we need to establish Indigenous People’s Day in Grand Rapids, we have to change the focus of the day, to really celebrate Indigenous heritage and history.” She also stated that many countries in Latin America have renamed the day and call it Indigenous People’s Day. Ben Williams thinks these changes are necessary but said it will be a slow process, “since it will not be a priority for politicians to want to change the holiday.” Scott Stabler mentioned that at some campuses Indigenous People’s Day is already celebrated, but as long as it is a federal and state holiday there will continue to be a huge gap.

The next question posed to the panelists was how this ugly history impacts the present? Barry Phillips believes there has been a generational impact, from theft of land to boarding schools. “We are still feeling the effects of genocide today.” Ben Williams thinks that there are parallels to today. “Columbus was a terrorist and that is the language we need to use.” For Shannon Martin the genocide is still continuing, “not with the search for gold and spices, but with oil. And it will keep continuing until truth telling is part of the education system.”

After the panel discussion, the audience was invited to ask questions or make comments. A local Native American activist Roger Williams stated, “Until America changes nothing will happen in this country…….whether it is media or sports mascots, these things all impact us. Until we demand change, nothing will happen. Respecting our spirituality is key, so when you all go back to your churches, be advocates for us so that your people respect our beliefs.

Another Native woman told the crowd that their prophecies say that “progress” and “over consumption” will happen and be the fall of this world, but it also says that people can unite, especially when other people come to them for understanding and knowledge.

Both the play to the panel discussion provided valuable information about the genocidal history of the US, but they also provided powerful messages about the resiliency of Native culture and the respect for all living beings.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    October 12, 2010 7:14 pm

    I did a quick scan of sites that offer Columbus Day teaching units for various elementary school grades. Although some of them offered no Native cultural perspective, I was pleased to see that some sites have added very thorough units describing the conquest and ongoing suffering of the Native people because of Columbus’s arrival.

    However, those units were all for upper grade levels, mainly grades 5 and 6. The rest of the units had lessons that told a positive story and then have the children do fairly mindless follow-up activities, with no required thinking skills or logic attached to them.

    Here’s an excerpt from a reading selection:
    “People in Europe wanted to buy things from Asia. They wanted spices. They wanted silk. They wanted gold. But it was hard to go to Asia by land. Christopher Columbus said, ‘I can go by sea. I can sail there.’ Queen Isabella of Spain gave Columbus three ships. The ships landed in America. It was October 12, 1492. Columbus thought he was in the East Indies. He called the people Indians. Columbus took some Indians back to Spain. He did not know he had discovered a new continent.”

    Then the children are instructed to sing, to the tune “Sailing, Sailing Over the Bounding Main,” this song:

    Columbus, Columbus, sailed across the sea,
    And found a very special land
    That belongs to you and me.
    Columbus, Columbus, we celebrate your day,
    In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
    When you sailed our way.

    This unit is disturbing on so many levels. It presents the idea of plundering another culture to be not only the norm, but desirable. It is written from a pure capitalist viewpoint. It talks about Columbus taking “Indians” back to Spain as if they were a commodity (and indeed they were treated that way). And then the song seems to celebrate imperialism (“Hooray for Columbus for securing this great place that now belongs only to us, even though we didn’t actually belong here and had to conquer it first”).

    By the time children reach Grade 5 or 6 and are presented with a more balanced presentation, they’ve already been brainwashed by offensive drek like this for four to five years.

    So the question does come to the forefront: why can’t the day be preserved as a national holiday, but given an entirely different focus? It could be a day to celebrate diversity in the United States, or a Memorial Day for the Native Americans who have been killed or died in attempting to preserve their lands, or, as Shannon Martin suggested, a model of other nations’ Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We could take Columbus out of the equation completely so we don’t end up laundering this moment in history in the minds of our most impressionable students.


  1. Looking at Columbus Day through Native Eyes (via Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy) « The Wobbly Goblin

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