Sunday, October 13, 2013

I'm Ambivalent About Columbus Day

When I was twenty years old, I learned the truth about Columbus.  I was living in the Dominican Republic at the time.  I was living among the Dominicans, not as a missionary, but as a student.  A learner.  

I attended school.  I rode the guaguas.  I walked through the Colonial Zone and watched the cruise ships dock and explode with foreigners looking for trinkets.  I watched the beaches become roped off so the tourists could enjoy the waves by themselves.

I experienced what it was like to look different than an entire population of people.  I experienced being singled out because of my skin color or hair texture.  I felt the discomfort.  But yet, I loved the people, the culture, the food, the sweltering hot weather.

It was during my time there that I learned about the Taino native people.  I learned that the island was once called Hispaniola, and that an entire race of natives was annihilated by Columbus.  And, to this day, not one full-blooded Taino lives due to disease, murder, and mistreatment by the Spanish conquerers.

And then, just recently, I read this post about Columbus Day on The Oatmeal: 

I know it's my duty to teach my students about the real history of Columbus and what happened so long ago.  

So why do I feel ambivalent every year?  Because I feel like I might be committing heresy against the many history textbooks that still gloss over the history?  Because I don't want to anger my students' parents?  There is such a fine line between teaching the truth to eight year olds and completely traumatizing them.

This year we do not have school on Columbus Day due to Fall Break.  But I still plan to use Jane Yolen's wonderful book Encounter, which describes the events of the Spanish conquerers from the perspective of a Taino boy.

When I was living in Santo Domingo, the running water and electricity were often turned off in sections around the city.  Imagine my surprise when I learned of a museum in town called the Columbus Lighthouse.  It is shaped like the cross and at night, using thousands of watts of light, projects the image of the cross onto the sky.  (Rumor has it that it can be seen from neighboring Puerto Rico.)  It was an interesting feeling to be sweltering in my room at night, with no access to A/C or fans, but to see the lighted cross in the sky in honor of Columbus.

I will share some of what I know with my students.  And I will feel comfortable not knowing the answers to all of their questions.  And I will be satisfied knowing that they will not be twenty years old when they finally learn the truth.


  1. This is very interesting to me because here in Australia when I was in school we were taught about British colonisation and the way in which this occurred was glossed over. We now talk about the British invasion and know something about the horrendous slaughter of the original indigenous inhabitants. I still have a lot to learn about Aboriginal culture and history but it is important for children to learn that our histories need to be seen from all perspectives and just not those with access to writing the history books. Thanks for sharing :)

    1. Hi Jane, Sorry for the delay in this response. I am very interested to learn about the British invasioin of Australia and the impact on the Aboriginal culture. Thanks for bringing that to my attention! Happy New Year!