If you’ve never had the experience of teaching the truth about the Columbus, you might want give it a try. As Ella Sekatau, Naragansett tribal historian, put it: “The truth is the truth is the truth. And it’s just waiting to be discovered.”

It can take a form as simple as a 5-year-old raising her hand during a Columbus Day presentation in kindergarten to say, “My grammy says that Columbus was a really bad man.”

Or it could be reading and discussing the hair-raising first chapter of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” A rapist and slave trader who chopped off the hands of native people of the Caribbean islands who didn’t bring him gold fast enough, the actions well-documented genocidal maniac reveal the sad truth: Columbus is not a person to be celebrated.

Now, if you’re a teacher emerging from the exhausting pace of the first month of school, it’s hard to argue with a three-day weekend in early October. When I taught high school social studies, a Penobscot student asked me to help her organize an alternative to celebrating. With her parents and the student volunteers she recruited, we convened a day of outdoor education, read some truth, and visited an extensive collection of native artifacts at Nowetah’s Indian Store and Museum in New Portland. A Passamoquoddy artist who uses traditional porcupine quill methods to create beautiful baskets, Nowetah traveled and traded with native artists all over the continent to build her collection, and she welcomes school visits.

In the intervening years, Penobscot leaders have convened Indigenous People’s Day each October to further the effort of re-educating people, and last year the town of Belfast became the first in Maine to follow a growing national trend toward renaming the holiday. This year’s event will be held today in Bangor.

One of the most popular tools for re-educating about Columbus is “The People vs. Columbus” ready-to-use curriculum materials, available free on the Zinn Education Project’s website. I’ve used this tool many times with teenagers who enjoy the mock trial format and role play that explores not only Columbus’ role, but that of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, the crew members of the ships that Spain sent, and the system of empire itself.


The related text “Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years” explains: “Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is a foundation of children’s beliefs about society. Columbus is often a child’s first lesson about encounters between different cultures and races. The murky legend of a brave adventurer tells children whose version of history to accept, and whose to ignore. It says nothing about the brutality of the European invasion of North America.”

That text was banned by schools in Tucson, Arizona, under legislation that abolished Mexican American Studies, a program targeted by conservative politicians. Despite numerous studies finding that Native American students and students of color are adversely affected when their history and culture is not taught, schools continue to serve powerful interests by suppressing the truth.

How many of us are teaching about the coalition of native groups taking a stand against oil pipeline construction that in North Dakota that threatens the water supply for millions? The potable water supply dwindles and record temperatures continue to climb. Why would we suppress their voices now?

Whichever tools you choose, and especially if you have a young audience, you could find the experience of reteaching Columbus exhilarating.

Then, move on to reteach Thanksgiving!

Lisa Savage, of Solon, is a teacher and literacy coach who earned national board professional teacher certification in history last year.

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