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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 6, 2001 - Issue 46


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 Why Rethink Columbus?

"Why rethink Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is basic to children's beliefs about society. For many youngsters, the tale of Columbus introduces them to a history of this country, even to history itself. The 'discovery of America' is children's first curricular exposure to the encounter between two cultures and two races. As such, the study of Columbus is really a study about us -- how we think about each other, our country, and our relations with people all over the world.

"The Columbus myth teaches children what voices to listen for as they go out into the world -- and whose to ignore....Thus children begin a scholastic journey that encourages them to disregard the perspectives, the very humanity, of people of color.

"What passes for discovery in the traditional Columbus myth was really an invasion. It deserves no celebration. However, the study of Columbus and the native peoples of America offers numerous opportunitis for genuine discovery. Western economies hae failed utterly to protect the earth. We can encourage students to discover from Native Americans new ways of understanding relationships between society and nature....Through critiquing textbook and other traditional accounts, students can begin to discover the excitement that comes from asserting onesself morally and intellectually -- refusing to be passive consumers of 'official' stories. And this is as true for 4th graders as for juniors in high school. They can continue to renew and deepen this personal awakening as they seek out other curricular silences and sources of knowledge." -- from Introduction to Rethinking Columbus
Teaching About Columbus: From a Native View

In 1451, Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy. His true Italian name is Christoforo Colombo. Columbus' father was a weaver, and it was expected that Columbus would become one also. Instead, Columbus dreamed of becoming a sailor and so he talked with sailors and studied maps and charts.

When Columbus was fourteen, he was hired as a cabin boy. His main voyages were short trips to the Mediterranean Sea. By the time Columbus turned thirty he became a captain.

In 1476, Columbus became a Portuguese citizen and married Felipa. This is where his thoughts of traveling west to reach the Indies started to grow. He knew a voyage would be expensive, so in 1482, he asked King John II of Portugal for money and ships to sail west to the Indies. When the King refused, he went to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. At first, he was rejected but when Columbus asked Spain the second time, Queen Isabella decided to fund the expedition.

Columbus was given three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. He also received eighty-eight men to serve as crew members.

On August 3, 1492, Columbus and his ships headed westward. Along the journey, the sailors began to be disheartened. On October 10, they demanded that Columbus go back to Spain. To stop the tyranny, Columbus said that if they didn't sight land within two days, they would turn around.

Two days later, they saw birds and Columbus changed his direction to follow the birds. At 2:00 A.M., the morning of October 12, 1492, a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana on the Pinta sighted land.

Columbus dressed in his finest clothes to go ashore. He kissed the ground and claimed the land for Spain. There were people living on the island. They perceived Columbus as though he were a god. Columbus called these people "Indians" because he believed he had reached the Indies. He also announced the island to be named San Salvador.

He visited other islands in search of gold. The Santa Maria wrecked on a coral reef and Columbus had to leave without it. Columbus returned to Spain and forced some Indians to join him. He returned three more times, all voyages being unsuccessful in reaching the Indies. Columbus never saw the United States and he never thought he had found a new world, but he is still honored in America by celebrating Columbus Day on October 12, the day of his first landing in 1492. Many places in the United States are named after him including: Columbus, Ohio; Columbia, South Carolina; Columbia, Maryland; District of Columbia; and the South American nation of Columbia.

So why isn't our country named "Columbia?" When a map maker was making a new map he decided to include the new world, and he decided to give it a name. He called it "America" in honor of Amerigo Vespucci. In reality, Columbus nor Vespucci discovered America. Because "to discover" means to see or learn or find something for the first time, the Native Americans are the true discoverers of America.

Five hundred and nine years ago, Christopher Columbus was discovered by Indians. In his journal, the explorer recounted the humble and godly way in which the Taino Natives greeted the conquistadores. They put their fingertips together as if in prayer, and bowed their heads, covering their faces with their hands. To Columbus, the Taino were acknowledging the superiority of the newly arrived Europeans. Appreciating their servility, Columbus wrote of them that there were "in all the world no better people."

A later Native American scholar saw things differently. The Taino, like other Native peoples, were scrupulously clean. They bathed in the warm waters of the Caribbean everyday. Fifteenth century Europeans, on the other hand, thought that exposing bare skin to water was a dangerously unhealthy habit. That philosophy was held by those with all the comforts of home. Sailors on a long ocean voyage would have had even lower standards of hygiene.

So it was likely that the Taino weren’t demonstrating a customary greeting but were instead finding the politest possible way to block out the stench of Columbus and his men.

The Tainos lived on grassy plains and lowland rain forests. They inhabited the Northeastern coast of South America three thousand years ago. The natives were tall, handsome, and clean-shaven people. Their skin was olive-tan and many of them wore face and body paint.

The Tainos had to be surprised to see a large wooden boat land and strangely dressed men get out and kiss the ground. Columbus reported that the "Tainos liked a peaceful, unhurried life" (Clare, 28). They built hammocks to sleep in and men smoked tobacco while women told stories. In the Taino culture, old people cared for the children and prepared meals. The young women cultivated the fields, while the young men hunted for snakes, turtles, and iguanas.

Columbus wanted to convert the Tainos to Christianity. Columbus forced six Tainos to be his guides as he toured the other islands. He took these captives back to Spain with him.

Friendly relations between the two peoples did not last long. During another Spanish voyage, many Tainos were beaten and murdered. When the Spanish became hungry, they ransacked villages, leaving the Taino people helpless. Europeans brought diseases along with them that the Tainos lacked immunity to. The weapons that the Europeans had were no match to the Tainos. An estimated fifty thousand Tainos perished in the year 1494.

There were also many Indian captives, so the Europeans decided to ship the Taino prisoners in bondage to Spain. Some sixteen hundred Tainos were taken to the port. Only five hundred and fifty captives could be jammed onto the boat. The rest were left behind to be slaves to the Spanish that stayed behind. Columbus issued a high tax on the Tainos. They were stuck. On one side if they refused to pay the tax, they faced death and on the other, they faced starvation. They were homeless in their own land. They were devastated by abuse, starvation, and disease. They were subjects of high taxes, and soon were forced to be subjects of the crown.

Life was never the same for the Indians after that day in 1492.


Rethinking Schools
Fifteen years ago, a group of Milwaukee-area teachers had a vision.
They wanted not only to improve education in their own classrooms and schools, but to help shape reform throughout the public school system in the United States.
Today that vision is embodied in Rethinking Schools.

Lies My Teacher Told Me
American history is full of fantastic and important stories. These stories have the power to spellbind audiences, even audiences of difficult seventh graders. Yet they sleep through the classes that present it.
What has gone wrong?

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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