By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Matthew De Lucia-Zeltzer reads to his students at Cesar Chavez Elementary in San Francisco.
Is Columbus Day about a bold explorer “discovering” America? Or is it a day to commemorate the acts of cruelty, enslavement and genocide against Native Americans already here?
Is Thanksgiving a time for students to wear paper vests, headdresses and feathers portraying Indians feasting with Pilgrims? Or is this a cartoonish stereotype that would never be tolerated if it depicted other ethnic minority groups?
Things have changed since we learned “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Some school districts have done away with Columbus Day altogether and instead celebrate Indigenous People’s Day.
It’s not easy to teach about holidays and history in a way that is culturally sensitive and accurate. History books still gloss over unpleasant facts, as shown in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, which describes in detail how Columbus enslaved natives, mutilated and tortured them, forced them to work in gold mines, and was both a “heroic navigator and plunderer” in the name of religion.
“If textbooks included these facts, they might induce students to think intelligently about why the West dominates the world today,” says Loewen, a former history teacher at the University of Vermont. “That is unfortunate, because Columbus’ voyages constitute a splendid teachable moment.”
Offering cultural perspective
Matthew De Lucia-Zeltzer, a third-grade teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in San Francisco, enjoys the challenge of turning a lesson about Columbus into an exercise in critical thinking. He believes in teaching history in a way that’s “progressive, not in terms of the status quo,” and observes that many of his Latino students also have indigenous roots.
The Friday before Columbus Day, the teacher known as “Mr. D-Z” asks students to look at an ambiguous picture. Half of them see a duck; the other half see a bunny.
“What you see depends on your experiences and your point of view,” says the United Educators of San Francisco member. “How you see something might not be how someone else sees it. This happens in class. It also happens throughout history.”
Next he reads aloud from Encounter by Jane Yolen, which tells the story of Columbus from the perspective of a child belonging to the Taino tribe. Columbus and his men appear friendly, but the boy sees that they are greedy for gold. The invaders attempt to enslave the boy with other Indians they have taken captive, but he escapes.
As part of the lesson, students are asked to write essays from the point of view of the Taino Indians and also through the eyes of Columbus. He wants his students to think critically about past historical events and their ramifications today.
“Just because you put your flag in a piece of land doesn’t make it yours,” says student Ashley Cunanan. “That’s just rude.”
“If not for Columbus, we would not be here,” points out classmate Darwin Mendoza. “He was brave, and his goal was making things better for his own people.”
The students are young and spared from hearing about some of the worst atrocities committed by Columbus against native peoples. But Don Steinruck, who teaches at the Smith River Elementary School, does not hold back during social studies lessons for middle schoolers.
Columbus brought famine and disease to Haiti, the island where he first set foot on North American soil, and terrorized the Tainos into supplying food and labor, Steinruck informs his students. Those who defied Columbus were pursued into the hills and murdered, while thousands decided to take their own lives and the lives of their children rather than submit to the conqueror.
Steinruck belongs to the Absentee Shawnee tribe, which received the name nearly a century ago because tribal elders were absent during the federal government’s census count in Oklahoma. For many years he was chair of CTA’s American Indian/Alaska Native Caucus.
“When I was a boy growing up in California, we got Columbus Day off from school, and I never knew why until I got into high school,” says Steinruck, a member of the Del Norte Teachers Association. “But as I delved into history, I saw it as much more than taking a day off. It was really a day to cry and a day for mourning.”
The behavior of Columbus toward Native Americans set the stage for mistreatment that continued until fairly recent times, notes Steinruck, including the forced sterilization of Native American women and mandatory boarding school for children, which continued through the 1970s. Steinruck asks his students to compare the 1948 United Nations convention on genocide with how Native Americans were treated.
“I am one of very few Native American teachers in California, and I want you to know the truth,” Steinruck says to students. “We must know the whole story, not just bits and pieces. We must know the facts so we can educate others.”
While Thanksgiving is a less controversial holiday, some teachers are rethinking how it should be taught, with more emphasis on Native American culture and the spirit of giving. Many schools hold multicultural “harvest celebrations” and ask students to bring a dish reflecting their own nationality.
Loewen maintains that during the first Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims did get along peacefully. However, the feast was a precursor of terrible things to come for Native Americans, including wars and the Indian Removal Act.
CTA Board member Marty Meeden, a member of the Paiute tribe from Mono Lake, resents the “paper bag” Indian costume worn by students in Thanksgiving re-enactments, since it implies that Indian culture is disposable and can be wadded up and thrown away.
Youngsters wear feathers in school Thanksgiving celebrations, without realizing the religious significance feathers play in the lives of Native Americans, Meeden observes. Other regalia mimicked in paper have religious significance for Native Americans and can only be worn after undergoing a “rite of passage,” such as surviving for several days in the wilderness without food or water.
“Could you imagine students re-enacting the Last Supper of Christ and having all of his disciples wearing paper bags?” asks Meeden. “People would not tolerate this. But somehow it’s okay when it happens to other cultures.”
An opportunity to teach
Two years ago in Claremont, parents of kindergartners at neighboring schools fought about whether students should be allowed to continue the longtime tradition of dressing up as Native Americans and Pilgrims and sharing a feast.
Suzanne Miller, a kindergarten teacher at Mountain View Elementary School, recalls that a Native American parent complained to school officials about paper bag costumes being degrading to Native Americans, so teachers at her school and Condit Elementary School opted not to have the children dress up, even though the costumes had been created. Miller says no disrespect was intended from the costumes and that she and other teachers used Thanksgiving as an opportunity to teach students about Native American culture — and harmony between diverse groups.
When parents found out the costumes had been banned, some became angry and decided to remove them from their children’s classrooms. They sent their children to school in paper bag Indian costumes, despite the school’s decision against it. Native American parents became angry at the school.
“It was terrible,” recounts Miller, a member of the Claremont Faculty Association. “You had little kids walking to school in these costumes and people holding up signs about genocide and the police showing up, and it was all on national news. Kindergartners don’t need to learn about genocide. They’ll get that information when they get older.”
Since then, says Miller, the district has created a committee to create guidelines for celebrating Thanksgiving in a culturally sensitive way and is considering a harvest theme.
Diana Lee, a kindergarten teacher at Smith River Elementary School in Del Norte, says she used to hold Thanksgiving lessons that included paper Pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses. But she no longer does that in her classroom, which has several Native American students.
“I wasn’t thinking about how the parents of Native American children would feel, and I started questioning whether I should do it,” says the Del Norte Teachers Association member. “Yes, it was fun to have everyone dressed up, but I learned that wasn’t appropriate.”
During a recent lesson about Thanksgiving, the children talked about how the Pilgrims learned to plant corn and crops from the Indians and celebrated in a feast called Thanksgiving. They were then asked to write down and draw things they were thankful about in their own lives. One student was grateful for his dad’s muscles; another for television; and another for his toy cement truck.
“Basically, we don’t talk about the Pilgrims too much. We talk about friendship and being grateful, and introduce the holiday as a way of giving thanks,” says Lee. “To me, it’s about being grateful for family, grateful for what’s on the table, grateful for our health and for all of the things we have.”
Resources for teaching about Columbus Day and Thanksgiving
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen, critically examines 12 popular American history textbooks and concludes that textbook authors propagate false, mythologized views of history.
Encounter, by Jane Yolen, is an account of the arrival of Columbus on the island of San Salvador, as viewed through the eyes of a Taino boy.
500 Nations, an eight-part television documentary hosted by Kevin Costner, surveys the history of Native Americans of North and Central America from pre-Columbian times to the end of the 19th century.
http://indigenouscaribbean.wordpress.com/directory/tainos-greater-caribbean-usa provides information about the Tainos and other indigenous peoples of the Caribbean.