Manataka® American Indian Council
Lies My Teacher Told Me...
Researchers find deficiencies in Columbus school books
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The story of Christopher Columbus and the people he encountered when he arrived in the Caribbean has yet to be truthfully conveyed in books used by elementary school students, a new University of Florida study finds.
Long before Columbus Day arrives Oct. 12, an overwhelming majority of books used by children in libraries and classrooms have presented outdated information and outright distortions about the explorer’s expeditions, said UF researcher Donna Sabis-Burns. She did the study for her doctoral dissertation in the school of teaching and learning in UF’s College of Education.
“Picture books are usually the first time children are exposed to the story of Columbus, so they need to be truthful,” she said. “Unfortunately, these books are telling our children a history that is filled with omissions and misrepresentations.”
Referring to the native people as savages when Columbus kidnapped hundreds into slavery and his shipmates raped local women are among the most glaring examples of falsehoods, said Sabis-Burns, who is now a team leader with the U.S. Department of Education’s School Support and Technology Program in Washington, D.C.
Within the sample, most of the books are widely outdated at more than 10 years old, Sabis-Burns said. Less than 2 percent of the volumes contain more readily available information that became increasingly visible in 1992 as scholars released new findings to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first expedition to the New World, she said.
The week after Columbus Day in 2008, Sabis-Burns sent an online survey to school districts, teachers and national education listservs in 39 states about which reading materials they used on the explorer. She received responses from 189 teachers and 89 librarians, who provided a list of 182 books, which she analyzed for content.
Six out of 10 books failed to identify the native Taino people whom Columbus encountered by their tribal affiliation, calling them simply “Indians” or “natives” and even “gentle heathens” or “naked, red-skinned savages,” Sabis-Burns said.
“Without these people, Columbus never would have survived,” she said. “Had it not been for the Tainos, his voyages would not have been successful.”
The Tainos showered Columbus with much-needed food and showed him how to navigate the Caribbean islands, Sabis-Burns said.
Many of the books claim that the Tainos became extinct, even though about 600 descendants survive in small pockets of Cuba’s Guantanamo Mountains, she said.
While book publishers are beginning to release books for older children with more details about the Tainos, the practice has not extended to the picture book genre shared in today’s classrooms within the survey sample, she said.
Seventy-seven percent of picture books analyzed in the study use either oversimplified descriptions or primitive depictions of the native people, Sabis-Burns said. Less than half describe Taino trading items, traditional dress, agricultural practices or other aspects of their culture, many of which were never documented as belonging to the Taino, she said.
“It is not my intent to load picture books with men raping women or murdering them in the illustrations,” she said. “My point is that the books don’t tell what happened to the Taino at the hands of the Spanish.
“On his first voyage Columbus kidnapped several Tainos and shipped them back to Spain to be sold into slavery because he was afraid he would not have enough riches to compensate Spanish royalty for financing his trip,” she said.
On his next trip, Columbus seized hundreds more Tainos as slaves, many of whom died and were tossed overboard before his ships reached Spain, she said.
The Tainos killing of 39 men left behind after Columbus’ ship crashed into a reef on the island of Hispaniola was not unprovoked as presented in some of the sample picture books, Sabis-Burns said. Before Columbus returned a year later to the La Navidad settlement to find his men gone, the Europeans forced the Taino to work the fields and raped women, she said.
Sabis-Burns said the two most widely used books were written in 1980 and 1992, despite the publication of at least 150 picture books on Columbus since 1992.
“Dr. Sabis-Burns has brought this country’s deep resistance to correcting the story of Columbus taught to our children to the surface with her research,” said Nancy Rankie Shelton, an education professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Year after year, schools across our nation celebrate Columbus Day with the youngest of our citizens, never once thinking about or teaching the destruction he caused the Taino people.”
White supremacist mentalities guide the actions of whites who idolize individuals such as Columbus as heroes. How could any descent human being say otherwise? For example, Columbus’s staunch supporters steadfastly ignore the fact that he, by landing on a small Caribbean Island and capturing people to be sold as slaves, began what would be the world’s most horrendous human tragedy, the complete destruction of a great many of the civilizations of two continents, and the near destruction of the remainder, a process that included the massacre of tens of millions of First Nations Peoples.
The number of our Peoples who died, and in many cases who are still dying, because of the European invasion he initiated, is incalculable. The closest number one can estimate, when taking into consideration that the slaughter started in 1492 has continued to a certain degree to this day, is several hundred millions. And, the vast majority of the millions who are the remnant of the original great civilizations that once prospered across the two continents, live a poverty stricken existence. This is something that should instill in the people whose ancestors begot the horror shame, not pride.
The idolizing of such barbarians as Columbus by European descended populations is not restricted to any one corner of the Americas. For instance, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, there is a park named in honour of Edward Cornwallis, the Province’s eighteenth century blood thirsty British colonial Governor, who participated in an attempt to commit genocide - it contains a large statue of him. He, and his Council, on October 1, 1749, decided to try to exterminate the Mi’kmaq indigenous to what is now Canada’s Maritime provinces. The method chosen by them to try to realize their inhuman goal was to issue a Proclamation offering a bounty of ten pounds (British money) for the scalps of the people, including women and children.
On June 21, 1750, perhaps because the scalps were not coming in fast enough, they issued another proclamation upping the bounty to fifty pounds.
Unfortunately, not knowing their histories, many of our Peoples innocently participate in the idolizing of these monsters. In view of this, I believe that it is time for us to undertake an in-depth education process that would instill in our Peoples the historic knowledge that would eventually see them undertake a complete boycott of any celebration, building, park, arena, etc. named in honour of the monsters who promoted the slaughter of our ancestors. In honour of the memories of our persecuted ancestors, can we in good conscience aspire to do anything less?
Dr. Daniel N. Paul
September 26, 2003
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