Rethinking Columbus — Expanded Second Edition!

The Next 500 Years

Edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson

Why rethink Christopher Columbus?

Students at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas by launching a school-wide "discovery." They invaded other classrooms, stole teachers' purses, and claimed them as theirs. Adapting a lesson described in the first edition of Rethinking Columbus (p. 17 in this edition), students emptied a purse in front of a teacher and her class, then remarked on its contents: "This sure is good gum, think I'll have a piece ... or two; you all know this is my purse, 'cause this is just my shade of lipstick." Kids in the assaulted classrooms figured out what was going on only when the invaders compared their "discovery" to Columbus's "discovery." The high-school students, with advance permission from other teachers, led discussions and described Columbus's policies toward the Taíno Indians on Hispaniola. They concluded by offering black armbands to students as a way to demonstrate solidarity with Native Americans’ 500 years of resistance.

Just two years before, in October of 1990, the Chicago Tribune had promised that the Columbus Quincentenary would be the "most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations." The Portland students' "Discovery Day" is not what the Tribune had in mind.

Prompted by widespread Native American activism leading up to the Quincentenary, educators throughout the Americas re-evaluated the social and ecological consequences of the Europeans' arrival in 1492. Teacher unions, community groups, social justice organizations, universities, and school districts initiated workshops and teach-ins. New curricula, videos and children's books appeared. In 1991, Rethinking Schools published the first edition of Rethinking Columbus, which subsequently went through seven printings and sold 225,000 copies. We were pleased to be a part of a movement to question a myth that dismissed the very humanity of entire peoples. We believe this critical work by so many has made a profound impact in schools.

But we have a long way to go. Too many children's books, textbooks, and curricula continue to tout the traditional Columbus myth. For many youngsters, the "discovery of America" is their first curricular exposure to the encounter between two cultures and to the encounter between two races.

The "Columbus-as-Discoverer" myth teaches children whose voices to listen for as they go out into the world — and whose to ignore. Pick up a typical children's book on Columbus: See Chris; see Chris talk; see Chris grow up, have ideas, have feelings; see Chris plant the flag... In these volumes, native peoples of the Caribbean, the "discovered," are portrayed without thoughts or feelings. And thus children begin a scholastic voyage that encourages them to disregard the perspectives, the lives, of people of color. Both the words and images of the Columbus myth implicitly tell children that it is acceptable for one group of heavily-armed, white people from a "civilized" country to claim and control the lands of distant non-white others.

During the Quincentenary, a more "balanced" approach to European/Native American conflict also emerged. According to a Library of Congress-produced curriculum that exemplified this seemingly neutral inquiry, "The story of the Americas, more than any other area of the world, is the story of peoples and cultures coming together," resulting in"a cultural mixture." This newer framework suggested that world history since 1492 has been a series of trades and trade-offs. "They" gave "us" the potato, corn, and a great deal of gold. "We" gave "them" the horse, sugar, and, regrettably, germs. This process planted "seeds of change," in the words of the Smithsonian Institution. While offering important insights, this approach failed to address questions of the origins of racism, economic exploitation, and resistance.

In this new edition of Rethinking Columbus, we try to offer an alternative narrative. Our goal is not to idealize native people, demonize Europeans, or present a depressing litany of victimization. We hope to encourage a deeper understanding of the European invasion's consequences, to honor the rich legacy of resistance to the injustices it created, to convey some appreciation for the diverse indigenous cultures of the hemisphere, and to reflect on what this all means for us today.

We have tried to provide a forum for native people to tell some of their side of the encounter — through interviews, poetry, analysis, and stories. The point is not to present "two sides," but to tell parts of the story that have been mostly neglected.

It would be nice to think that the biases in the curriculum disappear after Columbus. But the Columbus myth is only the beginning of a winners' history that profoundly neglects the lives and perspectives of many "others": people of color, women, working-class people, the poor.

Columbus's Legacy

Columbus is dead but his legacy is not. In 1492, Columbus predicted, "Considering the beauty of the land, it could not be but that there was gain to be got." From the poisonous chemical dumps and mining projects that threaten groundwater, to oil spills on the coastal shorelines to the massive clearcutting of old-growth forests, Columbus's exploitative spirit lives on.

Likewise, the slave system Columbus introduced to this hemisphere was ultimately overthrown, but not the calculus that weighs human lives in terms of private profit — of the "gain to be got."

We've featured essays and interviews that underscore contemporary resistance to the spirit of Columbus. We believe that children need to know that while injustice persists, so does the struggle for humanity and the environment.

In a very real sense, most of us are living on stolen land. However, this knowledge must not be used to make white children feel guilty. There is nothing students can do to change history. And they should not feel responsible for what others did before they were born. However, we hope the materials in Rethinking Columbus will help you teach that people of all backgrounds do have a responsibility to learn from history. We can choose whether to reverse the legacy of injustice or continue it. This is one reason that we've made special efforts in this edition to highlight people who have chosen to stand for justice.

We hope that these materials will also help students to discover new ways of understanding relationships between society and nature. Even the very words used by different cultures to describe the natural world are suggestive: compare the West's "environment" — something which surrounds us — to native peoples' "Mother Earth" — she who gives us life. Native views of the earth challenge students to locate new worlds of ecological hope.

Through critiquing traditional history and imagining alternatives, students can begin to discover the excitement that comes from asserting oneself morally and intellectually — refusing to be passive consumers of official stories. This is as true for 4th graders as it is for juniors in high school. Students can continue to renew and deepen this personal awakening as they seek out other curricular silences and sources of knowledge.

As the scholar Edward Said noted, "Nations are narratives." For too many, this country has been a narrative that started with the myth of Columbus. It's time to hear other voices. We offer this second edition of Rethinking Columbus as our contribution to a many-sided and ongoing discussion about the future.

      — the editors