Students Speak: How America Should Celebrate Columbus Day

This morning we hear from David S. Baker, student at the Academy of the Pacific Rim in Boston, Massachusetts, about his vision for a more just world. David’s op-ed is an inspiring example of critical thinking, an interdisciplinary approach to learning, and the power of unleashing student voices.

We hope that some of our readers will share this message with their students and offer them the opportunity to respond. As Columbus Day approaches, we can all consider David’s message and join in the conversation!

How America Should Celebrate Columbus Day

Written by David S. Baker September 7, 2014

Recently in my high school English class we started to read The Grass Dancer by Susan Power, a novel that follows Harley Wind Soldier, a Native American on the Sioux reservation. Power draws attention to the struggles that Native Americans face to be able to achieve in modern American society. Soon after starting reading this book we were posed with a question in History class, “How should America celebrate Columbus Day” and at first I didn’t understand what my teacher meant. I thought we should celebrate by simply honouring his work and the mark he left on history, since what he did led to me being here in America. However after reading Columbus’ journal and the history as interpreted by Howard Zinn, James Loewen and Bartolome de las Casas, I now think America should abolish the idea of a Columbus Day. We should not celebrate Columbus’ exploits, instead we should strive to correct the injustices this country was founded and still functions on today.

Columbus is widely believed to have been the one to discover the Americas. This is extremely disrespectful and dehumanising to the natives who already inhabited the continent. Just because the land was unknown to the rest of the world doesn’t mean it was undiscovered simply not charted by Europeans; Columbus simply arrived in the Americas. Columbus wasn’t even the first to spot the land from the boat nor was he the first to set foot on the beach (Columbus). So Columbus might be given credit for being the leader of the expedition but his crew are the ones to spot and arrive at the “New World” (Columbus, Thursday, 11 October 1492). Already the whole discovery angle is out the window based on the moral indecency of “discovering” an inhabited area and the fact that Columbus wasn’t even the first to “discover” the Americas, technically the Admiral and crew were the ones that get the medal for that. Might as well be Admiral day, even sounds better. Another achievement that many attribute to Columbus is being the first to suggest the world was not flat, but round. Yet again Columbus was not the first. In fact the Romans knew that the earth was round as early as 150 AD, as can be seen in a sculpture called the Atlas Farnese. The sculpture in question is of the titan Atlas holding the earth, in the shape of a sphere, on his shoulders. Even more insulting to Columbus, and I suppose every student suffering through a 10th grade Algebra class, is that in ancient Egypt a man named Eratosthenes not only discovered the world was round but was also able to deduce the circumference of the earth. What is so insulting about this? Well Eratosthenes lived during the the third century BC and was able to determine the circumference using only his mind, eyes, sticks, feet and brains, with no calculator or any other technology (Sagan). So what else does Columbus have to his name? He has his legacy, the United States of America, right? Except he never set foot on the United States. We can, however, attribute the complete annihilation of native empires and the systematic destruction of Native American culture, society and land to Columbus.

Now to swing back to how I started, The Grass Dancer, and my English class. For in my English class we learned about the condition of Native Americans in present day society, they have the highest alcoholism, infant death and domestic abuse percentage of any ethnic

group in America, not to mention the greater majority of them live under the poverty line (Huey). This is the legacy faced everyday by the Native Americans who were lucky enough to have their ancestors survive. Though it is widely known that millions of natives died as a result of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, and that these deaths were often planned and deliberate (Zinn, pg. 3), we still view Columbus as an okay guy. We, as a country, sweep all that bad stuff under the rug, clap our hands together and say “well Columbus is why we are here so lets give him his own day”. Columbus captured natives and sold them as slaves – so not only was it his legacy that the natives were killed and sold into slavery, he was also a direct offender (Columbus). It just gets worse and worse. This is the man that men, women and children around the country celebrate for his “brave and courageous journey to the great unknown and discovery of the new world” and yes that is, in a way, correct. What Columbus did took courage and he did travel the uncharted areas of the world but that is not where the story stops. The story at schools and in the average household does not include Columbus’ slave trade of native people. The stories don’t talk about the mass suicides in Haiti because the natives were faced with a slow death if they didn’t meet their almost impossible quotas (Zinn, pg 4). Our stories don’t include the 29.1% of Native Americans currently living in poverty (Infoplease). These are the true legacies of Columbus

In one of my History classes a girl asked me “I know Columbus wasn’t perfect but don’t you think those things he did were worth it since we can all sit together in the same classroom?” It took me a second but I realized she meant that it was worth the atrocities to have all of us, regardless of race and gender be in the same room. My answer is, no it is not worth it. I’m not anti-american, nor do I see the world in black and white, but I will not excuse the bad for what is good. This country has beaten down the Native Americans and killed thousands. And the most hot button topic of all is that people are beaten, judged, discriminated, hated and tossed aside because of the color of their skin, the country they were born in, the culture they have and the people they have no choice but to love. This is the legacy of Columbus. Now we are a society that celebrates this man, and I say we should have no Columbus Day. We should help the Natives of this land to rise from the grave that the Spaniards dug and tossed them in. We should make a day to correct the wrongs committed. We should make sure women can walk at night without fear, that people can follow their hearts no matter the gender or race of the person they love and be able to have a fair shot at life, both figuratively and sadly literally, no matter what shade your skin comes in. So I call for the end of Columbus Day, and the beginning of a new holiday, one where we as a country focus on the wrongs that we live with daily and fix the decay of the present which has been caused by the past.

Works Cited

Huey. (2010, September). America’s Native Prisoners of War [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/aaron_huey Infoplease. Infoplease. Web. 16 Sept. 2014 <http://www.infoplease.com/spot/aihmcensus1.html&gt;.

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: New, 1995. Print.

Power, Susan. The Grass Dancer. New York: Putnam’s, 1994. Print. Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980. Print.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: From 1492 to the Present. London: Longman, 1996. Print.

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Categories: Stage 5: Students as World Changers

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