Christopher Columbus (© istockphoto/ecliff6)
Columbus Day, a federal holiday held annually on the second Monday of October, commemorates Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1492. Despite nationwide closures of post offices, courthouses, and other federal buildings, not all of the fifty states celebrate this event. For instance, it is not a public holiday in California, Nevada, or Hawaii. As an alternative, Native Americans’ Day is celebrated in South Dakota, while Indigenous People’s Day is celebrated in the community of Berkeley, California.
This holiday is controversial for Unitarian Universalist families and many other liberal religious families because the European settlement in the Americas led directly to the demise of indigenous peoples and their cultures. There is also evidence that the first Europeans to sail across the Atlantic were not led by the Italian Columbus who was financed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, but were actually Viking explorers from Scandinavia hundreds of years earlier. And since the land was already populated by indigenous peoples, Columbus had merely “discovered” the Americas for Europeans bent upon building a great empire overseas.
So what do we do about Columbus Day? Since many of our school systems still teach the version of history that favors the empire builders, it may be necessary for parents to “fill in the gaps” by explaining not only did Columbus not actually set foot in what is today the United States of America (his ships actually landed in the Caribbean Islands) but he could not have “discovered” America because there were already people there.
Jennifer Orr, a first grade teacher at Annandale Terrace Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia, says we often simplify history in order to make it more understandable for children, and the story of Columbus’s discovery is merely an example of this. She believes that one thing even young children can understand about Columbus and what he achieved is that he did so by learning from those who came before him and building upon it.
Older children can also learn about how history is often written by the victors, and usually given voice by the dominant culture. From this perspective, we can help them understand how Europeans felt they had discovered this new land and why they believed they were entitled to settle in this New World despite the fact that there were already people living there. In fact, teenage youth can explore the very nature of colonialism, global domination, and Manifest Destiny that has been the legacy of the United States even before its inception.
We can also take time to acknowledge the culture and heritage of Native Americans who were here long before the arrival of the Europeans. By exploring the differences between the European colonial culture and the agrarian or nomadic societies of many indigenous peoples, particularly when it comes to the concept of owning land, the conflict becomes clear. The Europeans brought the Christian viewpoint underscored by the words in Genesis which gave them dominion over Earth and Sky, whereas the Native Americans could not even conceptualize the idea of selling their land because they did not believe they owned it. It was theirs only because they had it “on loan” from their magnanimous gods of nature or they had won the territory righteously in battle with neighboring tribes.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).