Daughter Dearest, We Do Not Celebrate Columbus Day in this Home

There is no easy way to introduce one’s child to the harsh reality of life on our Little Blue Planet.  It sure would be nice if my daughter, who is about to turn six, could spend the rest of her life in an imaginary world of fairies, secret gardens and princess kingdoms.  I would like to join her there most days, especially if it means I could finally ask out Princess Jasmine to dinner.

But, in fact, we live in a world where the Rape of Nanking, the Holocaust and 1,001 other historical horrors are reality—and far worse than the monster that lives in our trash compactor.  Or used to live there, rather.  I confessed this lie to my daughter about a month ago.

She knows that I explain the world to her realistically, “unlike other kids’ parents,” even if it’s just in terms she can understand.  So she was somewhat disappointed in me and demanded an explanation.  After all, I had explained the science behind outlets and what happens if one is daft enough to stick one’s finger into an electrical field.  Why was the trash compactor any different?

We have a rule in our house that “because” is never an adequate answer, so I knew I had to fess up.  Yet I struggled for a comprehensible justification:  “I don’t know.  I was afraid you would stick your hand in there, and I needed to make sure you were equally afraid.”

My daughter shook her head, “I don’t get it.  Either way, I would have lost my fingers.”

I may have a budding philosopher on my hands.  Or perhaps a future progressive politician.  Just last week she told me she was going to be the first female President of the United States “unless that other lady gets there first.”  Watch out, Hillary.  You have competition.

History, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated, parentally speaking.

When my daughter was three, I took her to the Columbia Museum of Art.  She fell in love with the painting “Buffalo Hunt” by Charles Christian Heinrich Nahl and spent several subsequent visits sketching it in one of her Hello Kitty notebooks.

She interpreted the work as a race between the Native American on horseback and the buffalo.  In a way, she was right.  The buffalo loses the race.

On a trip to the museum last year, she finally realized that the Native American is holding a bow and arrow in his hand.  “I wonder if that’s why the buffalo’s eye is so afraid,” she wondered.

“Buffalo Hunt” taught me that there are some things our children need to learn experientially.  The truth will reveal itself over time.

Teaching history to one’s child is a bit like that.  But it also requires thoughtfully timed cues.  Non-fiction picture books from my childhood rarely went to the trouble even to hint that major historical figures were tainted by the problem of evil. I find that today there is a bit more effort to show the dark side of history in children’s literature.  Still, authors and illustrators would much rather leave “the whole truth” to parents.

Last Thanksgiving, during a drive from South Carolina to Michigan, I caught the full episode of “This American Life’s” account of the Mankato Massacre.  On December 26, 1862, 38 Sioux Native Americans were slaughtered in the largest public execution in U.S. history, following several decades of indescribable betrayal by the territorial and state politicians of Minnesota.

What truly shocked me is that I had never heard about this event.  I was born and reared in Minnesota.  Although no Minnesotan’s education is complete without a trip to historical Fort Snelling and requisite reading of the canon of Laura Ingalls Wilder, not one picture book, textbook, educational film, etc., ever mentioned the Dakota War of 1862, or Sioux Uprising, as it is also known.

Miles and miles of Ohio farm fields that week gave me time to think the matter over.  I grew restless in the driver’s seat.  I felt cheated.  I am a well-educated person; history has been paramount to my adult development, with my chosen academic fields of archaeology and biblical history.  How did I go my entire life without knowing this tragedy had occurred within the boundaries of my home state?

I arrived home from Thanksgiving determined to make sure I begin introducing my daughter to real history—even if just in terms her five-year-old mind is capable of understanding.

In the past year, we made several trips to the South Carolina State House grounds and began the discussion of the history of slavery in our nation.  I will never forget when she asked me why there was a collar around the neck of the man in the African-American Monument.  It was akin to the moment she had noticed the bow and arrow in “Buffalo Hunt”; suddenly she understood the horror of slavery:  people had been treated like animals.

This past summer, we visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, the subject of one of my previous essays.  Through pictures, artifacts and sound recordings she experienced the heroism of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Gandhi and others.  She saw the tomb of Dr. and Mrs. King, saw the eternal flame.  She now has a connection with this story of history.

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Arik Bjorn

Arik Bjorn lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He was the Democratic Party / Green Party fusion candidate for U.S. Congress in the 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina. Visit the archive for Arik’s campaign website, and check out his latest book, So I Ran for Congress. You can also follow his political activities on Twitter @Bjorn2RunSC and on Facebook. And be sure to check out more from Arik in his archives!

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  • Pipercat

    As an Irish-Italian-American, which means we get mad then get even, I hate that this day is associated with my maternal ancestry. The whole Columbus was an Italian narrative has become quite suspect and it very possible he was a Catalan. I call it Da Vinci day out of protest. Condemning the actions of the man are called for, but condemning the man for what he was, a product of his time, is a bit much. Regardless, the truth will now suffer because of all of the myths and perceived sleights. I’ll just punt and see if history muffs…

    • Dissenter13a

      The winners get to write history, and it is unsurprising how kind they are to their own ilk.

      • Pipercat

        So true and yet, this isn’t so much about winning or losing; it’s more about exploitation after the fact. I guess I should lose the B-17 and put up a picture of the Mona Lisa…

      • Steve Brains

        When since ROME havethe Italians won ANYTHING?

        Ok OK. A couple of years, Ferrari to the World Championship in Ferrari’s and in the 50’s, Maserati’s.

    • HF

      Call it Bartolome Day instead. Bartolome de Las Casas is the man we should be revering instead of Columbus.

      • Steve Brains

        Why?

      • Linda Meinig

        de las casas did work to end the comienda system-but he simply replaced native workers with African slaves-so I would rather not celebrate him either

  • Dissenter13a

    The Biblical precedent was Jericho; never mind that archaeological evidence establishes that the city was abandoned several centuries before the Israelites came to settle in Canaan, that they did not wander in the wilderness, and that virtually all of OT history is pure fiction. Details, details!

    The sum and substance of history is man’s inhumanity toward his fellowman. The Arawak went the way of the Tasmanian aboriginal, but the primary cause of the collapse of the First Nations population in North America was disease.

    • Steve Brains

      They didn’t SETTLE in Canaan, the usurped as they are Usurping Gaza. and Palestine.

  • sgb1

    Sort of right but it is the Spite House that has closed the parks, not the Tea Party, which doesn’t have enough people in Congress to accomplish that. Read about the amazing cultures that inhabited both North and South American is “1491”. I don’t think the man, himself, got very far into either continent but Europeans certain brought disease, which brought down these proud civilizations.

    • HF

      I like that you totally ignore what happened *before* any parks closed – namely, that the HOUSE REPUBLICANS, and no one else, voted to shut the government down because all constitutionally acceptable methods of repealing an existing law they don’t like failed.

      That’s…kind of important.

      • Di Kelley

        Thank you, HF! Yes. The shut down happened because the Reublicans, driven by the right wing fanatic fringe, used their house majority to prevent a timely budget being passed because it paid for a program that had *already been passed* by Congress into law. If that isn’t the height of ridiculous I don’t know what is.

      • Steve Brains

        The height if ridiculousness is that REDS keep voting AGAINST a person, no matter WHAT it costs them.

      • circeherbivora

        He probably believes that Obama covered up Rushmore too.

      • Steve Brains

        he’s defending the TeaBaggers against the REDS.

  • Arik Bjorn

    As a supplement to my article, just wanted to add one little bit:

    On this Columbus Day, you might encounter one or two people who roll their eyes at the opposition to a day celebrating a ruthless slaver and murderer. But the fact is, “exploration history” is loaded with other falsehoods too.

    Case in point: Who was the first person to circumnavigate the globe?

    Before you answer “Ferdinand Magellan,” you might consider the fact that the man died in the Philippines while trying to force native peoples there to convert to Christianity.

    The real answer is Juan Sebastián Elcano.

    The history books of our youths are increasingly being revealed as cartoons.

  • Monica

    I’ll never forget the call from my son’s second grade teacher because he refused to write “Columbus” on a worksheet on who discovered America. She told me I should teach him to be more obedient. I told her, No, I should teach him to be honest and to ask questions until he understood. And that since I an 1/4 Norwegian and his dad is 1/4 Choctaw, she would never convince my son, who is proud of being “part Viking and part Indian” to lie and write Columbus down

    • Arik Bjorn

      LOVE THIS!!!

      • Monica

        His other teachers have been delighted and amused by his “attitude”, luckily.

      • Steve Brains

        I had one teacher like that, one year. We need to SWAP the education and Defense Budgets. Then we will raise a generation to SMART to manufacture unwinnable wars with our former allies. Or sell arms to our enemies.

      • Monica

        Unfortunately, there will still be stup I’d power hungry people who will start wars no matter how educated others become

      • Steve Brains

        But WHY do we NEED to elect them?

      • Monica

        Because we can’t control who other people elect or otherwise end up running other countries. The last war have been pointless, but without a strong military we are open to attacks that people will twist to justify things. I come from a military family…i wish a strong military wasn’t neccessary, and the money spent needs to be more for what the men on the ground need verses which contractor has the most politicians in their pocket, but it is neccessary

    • Steve Brains

      WAY TO GO MOM!!!!!

      Next show and tell, have him bring you and EXPLAIN who Columbus is a FRAUD!!! and the Teacher is WRONG!!!!

    • Brian

      Stories that never happened. How typical.

  • D Daniels

    The Mayan’s and Inca’s were slave owners before Columbus arrived…. pretty sure the Aztecs were as well.

    You are making the historical mistake (common) that all political people seem to make.(both liberal and conservative) You are judging historical actions and people based on context derived from the modern world.

    In 200 years, your writing could be seen as amoral or immoral, the teachings you give to your daughter could be construed as destructive to society. I do not believe either to be true, and future historians would be fools to think so. But to do that would be to judge your actions in a context 200 years in the future.

    It is no better for someone to say “Columbus committed genocide” than it is for conservatives to say “Madison would have wanted the citizens to have fully automatic weapons.”

    If Columbus suddenly appeared today, he would probably go “You can fly from Miami to Madrid in under 8 hours???”

    Madison would probably respond with “you don’t have to reload for how long??”

    Forget the fact at their responses to cars and cell phones would probably cause a heart attack.

    • Spencer

      Well, I think there’s a difference between “judging” their actions and celebrating them.

      Were his actions “moral” at the time? Maybe. But today we know better that what Columbus did was wrong, so we should not be celebrating it.

      Or for another example, should we be celebrating slavery? Certainly not. Slavery may have been accepted in the past, but that does not mean we should turn a blind eye to it when studying history.

    • Mahalofreddy

      We as Americans “celebrate” a man that now represents all that was and is wrong as a human race, I don’t think we have a day celebrating the Aztecs, Mayans, or Incas…… maybe in your book we should?

    • Steve Brains

      Not to mention the fact that BEFORE Columbus, the CRIME of MARRIAGE was not known to aboriginal peoples. The BOUGHT wives from families, but there IS no Marriage.

      On some Polynesian islands, a woman wears only a slim thong. If she moves it, you can enjoy her as you please.

  • Lorinda Adams

    I’m very curious to hear how this information is received in class!

  • Brian

    Does white guilt help you sleep at night?