What does it mean to "discover" a place? Specifically, what does it mean when a light-skinned European claims to have "discovered" a place that has been home to millions of people for thousands of years?
Our 3rd-5th grade students have been considering questions such as these since October 9, which has been the federal holiday called "Columbus Day" since 1937. We received great help from the text, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, published by Rethinking Schools (with a focus on ideas for the elementary classroom).
We wondered, we sang, and eventually, we put Columbus and his co-defendants on trial.
(1) We wondered ...
- Who was already living here?
- Where did Columbus and his crew land, and where did they believe that they had landed?
- What was he looking for, and who was paying the bill? Why?
- What happened to the Tainos and how did Columbus' voyages play a role in the Transatlantic slave trade?
- In more recent history, what has been the process for some American communities (such as Eugene, Portland, and Seattle) when people there decided to change the name of "Columbus Day" to "Indigenous Peoples Day"? Could we make a similar change here, and if so, what will it take?
(2) We sang ...
...the song "1492" by Nancy Schimmel, from "I Will Be Your Friend: Songs and Activities For Young Peacemakers." If you're curious about the lyrics and tune, take a listen to the song on YouTube (with lyrics)...
(3) Finally, we held a two-day trial ...
...to determine who was responsible for the mistreatment and murder of thousands, and perhaps millions, of the Taino people, who had lived in the Caribbean for approximately 13,000 years. (Fifty years after the arrival of Columbus, only 200 people from the Taino culture remained.)
In our role play, the class formed four groups of defendants: Columbus, Columbus' Men, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and the Taino people. Three students played the role of jury, and the jury and prosecutor (teacher Kaci) asked questions of each group. The groups were allowed to plead guilty ---and all but the Taino group made this plea--- yet those who pleaded guilty needed to name at least one other defendant whom they believed shared the guilt. Every student was allowed to make their own verdict of "percentage guilt," in which they were tasked to determine what percentage of guilt each defendant responsible for, totalling 100%.
Within the teachings, singing, and trial-making, there emerged spontaneous discussions and debates among the children. They held strong opinions about the nature of war and peace, whether the same tragedies would have happened if King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sent someone other than Christopher Columbus, the role of the "System of Empire," whether we have learned from our past mistakes and, most tenderly, they wanted to share their opinions of forgiveness: if something terrible like this happened to my family, could I forgive?
Our time with 1492 is drawing to a close, yet as we move closer to the next whitewashed American celebration, the day of turkeys and football that we call Thanksgiving, we will both practice the literal act of thanks-giving through practices of gratitude, as well as consider the long history of people who have lived on this land for thousands and thousands of years (and are not gone, but are alive, awake, and fighting for social justice).
The Domie Diary