Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Columbus Day reflection: How to begin a true voyage into a new world

October 10, 2011 by Laura Kaye Jagles


The historian Howard Zinn offers this account of Columbus’ arrival to Hispaniola: “Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat.  When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.  He later wrote of this in his log:

They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome feathers. . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. . . .  They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

The Landing of Columbus (Library of Congress image from Wikimedia Commons)

Was ignorance the ultimate demise of the Arawak people when they greeted and welcomed Christopher Columbus 500 years ago in what is now Cuba? Ignorance is certainly a factor determining many people’s misunderstanding of why indigenous peoples around the world abhor Columbus Day observations in preference of an Indigenous Heritage Day, which honors, respects, and positively reinforces indigenous descendants’ sustained ways of life and culture in spite of such worldwide atrocities.  Unfortunately, educating Americans about American Indian histories through indigenous lenses falls on many indigenous peoples because our educational system fails to reveal the truth of how the Americas were built.  It is everyone’s task to educate the educated all over again, if not, for the first time.

Our educational system fails to reveal the truth of how the Americas were built.

I am mostly addressing non-indigenous people who still carry numerous stereotypes in their heads about American Indians that continue to hinder their desire to truly acknowledge our human qualities of shared human experiences.  Some continue to believe all American Indians were killed, or we all live in teepees, wear feathers, don’t pay taxes, receive free college educations, and are quiet all-earth loving environmentalists with long flowing jet black hair.  No one stereotype is true of any one American Indian as we represent some 564 “federally recognized” tribes, each with its own language, custom, and history.  Although we represent only 1% of the total American population, we exist.  Most of us continue to resist full immersion into American ways of life and culture, by finding a necessary balance of maintaining jobs on or off the reservation to make a living while preserving our strong extended family ties and tribal obligations.

Resisting full immersion means continuing and honoring the 500 year resistance of our ancestors.  Just as Europeans fled to the Americas to resist persecution and rebelled against subjugation by colonial power, the struggle for freedom, respect, and understanding should unite us all.  The idea of progress for humanity must include any and all communities and people suffering oppression, such as the Xingu nation in Brazil being forcibly displaced by the construction of the Belo Monte dam project just last month. It’s past time to end Columbus Day celebrations.  Honoring his voyage, supposed “discovery of America,” and him is a representation and celebration of the Americas’ history of indigenous genocide, which mocks the continual existence of modern indigenous descendants and condones these acts of forcibly displacing indigenous nations for the sake of another’s idea of progress.  When we “discover” our genuine human qualities by educating one another, a true voyage into a new world will have begun.

Laura Kaye Jagles is the Director of Multicultural Life and the Tewa language and 7th Grade English teacher at the Santa Fe Preparatory School in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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