In the third grade, I placed second in the district-wide Christopher Columbus essay contest. Having moved to northern New Jersey from Thailand only two years earlier and keen on proving my “American-ness,” I absorbed everything my elementary school US History lessons taught me: Christopher Columbus was the discoverer of the Americas! He was brave, intelligent, and the harbinger of culture and civilization!
I moved from a region of the world where the legacies of colonialism are alive and inescapable. Southeast Asian lands have been pillaged, people have been enslaved and massacred for French profit, and all this was done in the name of civilisatrice, or the “civilizing mission.” While living in Thailand, I saw the atrocities of colonization from my own backyard. Today, I continue to live on colonized lands known as the United States. The only difference is that when it comes to US history, I’ve been taught to view colonization as “discovery” instead.
This year, I, along with fellow TCU senators Parker Breza, Anna Del Castillo, and Gauri Seth, are the authors of a TCU Senate resolution calling for Tufts University to recognize Indigenous People’s Day in place of “Columbus Day” on all university calendars.
As Tufts students, many of whom grew up in the United States chanting, “In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” we are able to condemn the horrors of colonization in lands abroad, but are reluctant to feel a similar devastation about the colonized lands Tufts is built upon today. We are able to see the racist fallacies behind “The White Man’s Burden,” but fail to question Columbus’ “spirit of discovery.” The truth, though, is that this “spirit of discovery” has been constructed on the backs of millions of Native Americans who were murdered, raped, and had their lands and resources pillaged—a fact that our elementary school history classes failed to address.
I realized that my third-grade teacher had left so much out. In his A People’s History of the United States, counternarrative historian Howard Zinn details the atrocities committed by Columbus. I did not learn that in 1495 alone, Columbus “rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak” people, “put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs,” and shipped 500 of the strongest to be sold as slaves in Spain—200 of whom “died en route.” I was never taught that Columbus forced all Arawak people ages “14 and older” to find gold for him to bring back to Spain; those who collected enough quantities of gold received “copper tokens to hang around their necks.” Those who did not “had their hands cut off and bled to death.” None of our textbooks ever told us that Columbus’ conquest in Haiti killed 250,000 Arawaks in just two years.
The oppression of Indigenous People in the Americas, specifically in the United States, is not a thing of the past. Genocidal acts committed by Columbus have been followed by a long history of racial discrimination—the removal of American Indians to reservations in destitute areas, the establishment of boarding schools built with the intention to “kill the Indian, save the man,” the dumping of high atomic nuclear waste in reservations such as the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah, and the killing of Native Americans, such as the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 where over 200 men, women, and children of the Lakota tribe were killed by the seventh US cavalry.
These memories are still alive and painful amongst Indigenous communities throughout the Americas. As Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) stated, “I cannot bear to see yet another generation of our children have to endure the celebration of our genocide. As a mother, I have found it so painful over the years to have my children look at me and ask why people are celebrating Columbus even when they know he was a bad guy.”
Munro’s frustration shows how the misinformation and whitewashing of the true history and legacy of Columbus has tangible and devastating consequences. “This hatred and exclusion can lead to our children giving up, feeling self-hatred, feeling completely alienated and unvalued, and leads not only to substance abuse and other problems but also I believe is one of the factors that leads directly to the nation’s highest high school dropout rates and youth suicide rates. Some of our children who are killing themselves are as young as 10,” Munro explained to us.
We may not be able to change the painful histories that have developed from Christopher Columbus’ conquest of the Americas, but we can choose to ensure that the histories and voices of Indigenous People are not silenced. We can choose to unlearn what our third-grade teachers have taught us, refuse to quietly accept Columbus’ conquest and murders in the name of discovery, and refocus the narrative on the resistance and dignity of Indigenous People. Our TCU resolution marks the first step to do just that. It passed unanimously through the TCU Senate this past December, and will be presented before the full faculty committee for the schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering for a vote in the upcoming months.
This resolution is not new, however. Last year, Genesis Garcia (A’15) and former TCU Senator Andrew Núñez (A’15) wrote a similar resolution. The resolution passed through the TCU Senate, but failed before the full faculty committee. According to Núñez, after presenting the resolution before the committee, the vote on the resolution was delayed more than four months. Reflecting on the process, Núñez explained, “My biggest barrier towards any semblance of progress was always what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as the ‘white moderate’—those who are the ‘great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom’ and who are more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefer a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.” Núñez described his “stumbling blocks” manifesting themselves as his professors, administrators, and his university president, Anthony Monaco.
This year, we hope to transcend these “stumbling blocks” by building together a coalition of students, faculty, and administrators who are passionate about seeing Indigenous People’s Day recognized in place of “Columbus Day” at Tufts. Currently, 31 student organizations on campus, as well as the United American Indians of New England, have publicly signed on to support this resolution. Groups include the Tufts Observer, Students for Justice in Palestine, Tufts Hillel, Friends of Israel, Crafts House, New Initiative for Middle East Peace, Tufts Amnesty International, Pulse, the Ladies of Envy, Out in Science Technology Engineering and Math, and many more. According to Fatima Ajose, a sophomore and an organizer of #TheThreePercent, “We support [the Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts] movement because we see our oppression as connected, especially when looking at the tied history of our two groups in the US.”
Indeed, this campaign is a movement. In just 2015 alone, nine cities, such as St. Paul, Olympia, and Albuquerque have adopted Indigenous People’s Day, and other universities, such as Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley, have also officially recognized Indigenous People’s Day in place of “Columbus Day.” As Dr. Matt Hooley, Tufts Visiting Assistant Professor of Native American Studies described, “Renaming is a starting point toward disentangling the work we do together at Tufts from legacies of US colonialism and slavery. It is a way of saying that we’re against genocide and slavery, and that we certainly have no interest in taking genocide and slavery as the occasion for a holiday. Secondly, renaming can be a process of reorganizing ourselves around the work of decolonization. Coming together to change the name, and organizing around that work, is itself a decolonial act.”
Like many of us, I grew up with Columbus as one my heroes. But we are no longer in the third grade. It is time for us to decolonize our childhood understanding of the world, question for whose benefit these teachings serve, and counter colonialism in our lives, communities, and the institutions we are a part of.
*If you are interested in getting involved with the Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts movement or have any questions, please email Benya.Kraus@tufts.edu. If you wish to show your support for this change, sign the petition posted on the Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts Facebook page.
with contributions by Parker Breza