Teachers urge fairness in study of Columbus voyage

October 14, 1991|By Los Angeles Daily News

WHEN NIKKI Nolen was taught as a child about the 1492 voyages of Christopher Columbus, she learned the romantic tale of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, words that still easily roll off her lips.

The first-year teacher at David Starr Jordan Middle School in Burbank, Calif., also learned that Columbus "discovered" America and found an "uncivilized" people -- notions that she now challenges in her classroom.

"Most of the history books fail to stress more of the negative consequences of colonialism and the diseases explorers brought with them," said Nolen, who is Cherokee and Sioux.

"I show both sides -- that the explorers wanted land, natural resources, minerals, gold, and that tribes were killed trying to hold on to their lands and by disease," said Nolen, who is Cherokee and Sioux.

With activism by American Indian groups and scholars now resulting in a portrayal of Columbus as a man who brutalized the native peoples, teachers such as Nolen are creating a new curriculum that mixes morality with history.

"Some young children still think of the 200-year-old image of the Indian with the headdress and war paint," Nolen said. "Hopefully, it (the revised portrayal of Columbus and the Indians) will help each individual student to take a look at their own lives and the impact they make on other people."

Baltimore and other cities held parades and celebrations during the weekend to start a year-long focus on the adventurer that will culminate in 1992 with the 500th anniversary of his voyage. For their part in the Columbus quincentennial, 31 national educational, historical and ethnic groups recently called on America's teachers to revise textbooks and lesson plans and to portray Columbus in a more realistic light.

"It is clear what Columbus did was a monumental event, and we can say so without saying [whether] he is a hero or not," said Frances Haley, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, which spearheaded the announcement. The council was joined by the American Historical Association, American Indian Heritage Foundation and the National Associations of Elementary School Principals and of Secondary School Principals.

Instead of saying Columbus "discovered" America, the groups feel youngsters should learn he "encountered" or "landed in" America and brought into contact two different civilizations that had existed for thousands of years. Students also should be taught that Columbus' voyage started an era of genocide, destroying Indian tribes and nations through disease, slavery and slaughter, the groups say.

"It's not just a word choice or a matter of semantics," said James B. Gardner, deputy executive director of the American Historical Association. "It's a basic conceptualization of what happened. It's a global issue that gets to the heart of global interaction."

American Indian Tony Bautista, director of the Los Angeles school district's American Indian Education Commission, said the new Houghton Mifflin social studies series used in California schools this year does a better job at balancing the Columbus story, but he said information still is left out.

Bautista said he is concerned that history still is taught from a European point of view, to the exclusion of the American Indian point of view.

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