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Bigelow writes: "Let's continue to use this and every so-called Columbus Day to tell a fuller story of what Columbus's voyage meant for the world, and especially for the lives of the people who'd been living here for generations."

The banning of Chicano studies books in Arizona Schools should be reversed. (photo: Zinn Education Project)
The banning of Chicano studies books in Arizona Schools should be reversed. (photo: Zinn Education Project)

Rethinking Columbus: Towards a True People's History

By Bill Bigelow, GOOD

06 October 12


his past January, almost exactly 20 years after its publication, Tucson schools banned the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus. It was one of a number of books adopted by Tucson's celebrated Mexican American Studies program - a program long targeted by conservative Arizona politicians.

The school district sought to crush the Mexican American Studies program; our book itself was not the target, it just got caught in the crushing. Nonetheless, Tucson's - and Arizona's - attack on Mexican American Studies and Rethinking Columbus shares a common root: the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.

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 who 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 "Taínos." So I ask 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 an artifact of historical silencing - rendering invisible the lives and stories of entire peoples. It's what educators began addressing in earnest 20 years ago, during plans for the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas, which at the time the Chicago Tribune boasted would be "the most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations." Native American and social justice activists, along with educators of conscience, pledged to interrupt the festivities.

In an interview with Barbara Miner, included in Rethinking Columbus, Suzan Shown Harjo of the Morning Star Institute, who is Creek and Cheyenne, said: "As Native American peoples in this red quarter of Mother Earth, we have no reason to celebrate an invasion that caused the demise of so many of our people, and is still causing destruction today." After all, Columbus did not merely "discover," he took over. He kidnapped Taínos, enslaved them - "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold," Columbus wrote - and "punished" them by ordering that their hands be cut off or that they be chased down by vicious attack dogs, if they failed to deliver the quota of gold that Columbus demanded. One eyewitness accompanying Columbus wrote that it "did them great damage, for a dog is the equal of 10 men against the Indians."

Corporate textbooks and children's biographies of Columbus included none of this and were filled with misinformation and distortion. But the deeper problem was the subtext of the Columbus story: It's OK for big nations to bully small nations, for white people to dominate people of color, to celebrate the colonialists with no attention paid to the perspectives of the colonized, to view history solely from the standpoint of the "winners."

Rethinking Columbus was never just about Columbus. It was part of a broader movement to surface other stories that have been silenced or distorted in the mainstream curriculum: grassroots activism against slavery and racism, struggles of workers against owners, peace movements, the long road toward women’s liberation - everything that Howard Zinn dubbed "a people's history of the United States."

Which brings us back to Tucson: One of the most silent of the silenced stories in the curriculum is the history of Mexican Americans. Despite the fact that the U.S. war against Mexico led to Mexico "ceding" - at bayonet point - about half its country to the United States, this momentous event merits almost no mention in our textbooks. At best, it is taught merely as prologue to the Civil War.

Mexican Americans were central to building this country, but you wouldn't know it from our textbooks. They worked in the Arizona copper mines, albeit in an apartheid system where they were paid a "Mexican wage." In the 1880s, the majority of workers building the Texas and Mexican Railroad were Mexicans, and by 1900, the Southern Pacific Railroad had 4,500 Mexican workers in California alone.

They worked the railroad, and they worked for their rights. In 1903, Mexican and Japanese farmworkers united in Oxnard, California, to form the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. As Ronald Takaki notes in A Different Mirror, "For the first time in the history of California, two minority groups, feeling a solidarity based on class, had come together to form a union." They struck for higher pay, writing in a statement that "if the machines stop, the wealth of the valley stops, and likewise if the laborers are not given a decent wage, they too, must stop work and the whole people of this country suffer with them."

Nowhere was this rich history of exploitation and resistance being explored with more nuance, rigor, and sensitivity than in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program. Like Rethinking Columbus, Mexican American Studies teachers aimed to break the classroom silence about things that matter - about oppression and race and class and solidarity and organizing for a better world. Watch Precious Knowledge, the excellent film that offers an intimate look at this program - and chronicles the fearful, even ludicrous, attacks against it - and you'll get a sense of the enormous impact this "rethinking" curriculum had on students' lives.

This coming Monday, October 8th is the day set aside as Columbus Day. Let's commit ourselves to use this - and every so-called Columbus Day - to tell a fuller story of what Columbus's 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. This is the work on which educators, parents, and students need to collaborate. your social media marketing partner


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+9 # Abigail 2012-10-06 21:56
It is well known that history is written by the victors.
+4 # JSRaleigh 2012-10-07 08:18
Quoting Abigail:
It is well known that history is written by the victors.

No, it's written by the survivors.
+7 # grouchy 2012-10-06 22:52
Seems to me, if I remember correctly, that some guy named Eric from Iceland dropped by some days before Columbus stepped ashore--or am I wrong? Oh, and he found the place infested with natives, I believe.
+6 # davidh7426 2012-10-07 12:30
Don't you mean 'inhabited'... 'Infested' is rather a negative word to use about another group of human beings
+12 # Jorge 2012-10-06 23:47
Columbus Day = Genocide Day.... or Invasion Day.
+22 # maddave 2012-10-07 00:32
Now that the ugly little secret about Columbus is out in the open, I suggest that---starting with our author, Bill Bigelow---we all get ourselves copies of Howard Zinn's "Peoples' History of the United States" and look at Dr.Zinn's well researched and footnoted chronicle says about OUR despicable treatment of Native Americans, white & black slaves, Chinese, Irish, Latinos, and working Americans in general . . . Non-affluent folks born in the USA or having arrived as immigrants were treated like animals. .

It all commenced with the arrival of Christopher, and judging from our today's widening wealth & power differential, we haven't progressed much---not as a fully integrated, equal opportunity society---since 1492!
+10 # Smokey 2012-10-07 03:13
Thanksgiving Day? That's another holiday on the American calendar that needs to be reexamined.... The year 2020 will mark the 400th anniversary of the "Mayflower" arrival at Plymouth Rock.
+7 # WolfTotem 2012-10-07 03:25

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799)
+10 # reiverpacific 2012-10-07 10:39
Well, the Vikings were here first anyway, wayyyy before Chrissie "Genocide" Columbus.
My American Indian friends universally refer to this as "Genocide Day" and ignore it.
And a quote from a Latino-American comedian about the wall along the Southern Border -"Who they gonna get to build it then, eh?"
History is written for the mass-consumptio n and propagandizatio n of a dopey population, by the scribes of the conquerors and until recently, perpetrated by Hollywood. Thank goodness that Howard Zinn, Maj'-General Smedley Butler and many others from the front line have began to slowly put all the jingoism and faux-patriotism into it's true, barbaric perspective.
I imagine that the indigenous peoples of this continent found the Vikings tough but at least honorable warrior precursors to the plagues of human locusts that landed subsequently.
0 # Athena1943 2012-10-07 22:38
Thank you! I shared on the Education Now! Facebook Page, the Occupy Ukiah page and my own FB Timeline.. I will share on the Google+ pages as well..

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