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Columbus Not the Hero
Americans Believe

Dennis Fox

October 28, 1992

SSU News

The 1992 celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America was dampened by the realization that Columbus may not be the hero Americans believe him to be.

Many Americans learned some disturbing details for the first time. Conferences throughout the Westerns hemisphere brought native peoples together to remind us that the story we learned in school was sadly incomplete.

Articles in national magazines reported gruesome details of Columbus' rule over the Caribbean. Community groups throughout the country held vigils in memory of Columbus' victims. In Springfield, more than two dozen people (including a number of SSU students) protested at the Columbus Day parade.

The fact that Columbus has become controversial puzzles many, since the recent media coverage does not mesh with the heroic story we learned in school. The public's puzzlement is often resolved by dismissing the critics as a bunch of crazies, mixed in with a few Indians who are surprisingly ungrateful for the benefits of European civilization.

Since Columbus has his vocal supporters, it becomes easy for many to ignore the troublesome calls for reevaluation and to simply dismiss the question raised in the banner carried in protest at the Springfield parade: Why celebrate genocide and slavery?

Those who make the effort to educate themselves about the reality behind the Columbus myth, however, are typically shocked by what they find--a common reaction among students studying the Columbus Quincentennial.

Part of the shock relates to Columbus himself, who was directly and personally responsible for the enslavement, torture, mutilation and murder of thousands of Indians of the Caribbean islands he and his brothers ruled. Most of these atrocities occurred after Columbus' first voyage in 1492, when he returned again and again to search for gold.

Part of the shock goes beyond Columbus himself to the legacy he left for those who extended his policies: the institutionalization of slavery and mass murder of the Indians; the slavery of millions of Africans stolen from their homes and brought here to produce riches for Europeans; the destruction of a natural environment that had nurtured millions of Indians in thousands of cultures from the Arctic to the tip of South Americal; and the common belief that might makes right.

There is still another kind of shock: the shock of realizing we were lied to. Why is our childhood memory of Columbus so hazy and positive?

Why were we never taught what he actually did to those smiling, friendly Indians pictured in the books we read as children?

Why didn't we learn about the torture, the mutilation, the rapes, the slaves, the single-minded pursuit of gold?

The details have been readily available for years, as in Hans Koning's Columbus: His Enterprise, a short but eye-opening book first published in 1976, and more recently in Kirkpatrick Sales' detailed The Conquest of Paradise. Why, then, are our children still learning the old myths? Is it simply that everyone loves a good story, and that no one wants to rain on a parade?

Or is it that those who write textbooks and determine school curriculum content understand that stories do have consequences? After all, what might be the outcome of teaching students to question the old myths about a man whose "adventurous spirit" is inseparable from the genocide and slavery to which it led? Might questioning the Columbus myth lead students to question the continuation of his policies today?

Even the current Ridley Scott film 1492, widely described as "revisionist" because it depicts atrocities against the Indians, manages not only to understate those atrocities but to blame them on a few evil individuals (inaccurately not even including Columbus!) rather than on the system of oppression intentionally created as European policy.

From the offensiveness of Chief Illiniwek and high school teams named Redskins, to the continuing U.S. refusal to honor treaties with Indian nations, to the destruction of Amazon rainforests and Amazon peoples, to the reliance on force to maintain U.S. dominance of the New World Order, Columbus lives on.

Nineteen ninety-two is an appropriate time to reconsider our past as well as our common future. Celebrating Columbus leads in one direction. Celebrating resistance to his legacy--resistance that has also continued for 500 years--leads in another. It is time for all of us to do what we can to change directions.

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