This 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.”
Bill Bigelow taught high school social studies in Portland, Ore. for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project. This project offers free materials to teach people’s history and an “If We Knew Our History” article series. Bigelow is author or co-editor of numerous books, including A People’s History for the Classroom and The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.