Columbus Day approaches, school curriculums glorify harmful historic figures

HiLite Staff

As many know, Oct. 10 is Columbus Day, a holiday commemorating the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492. The recognition is the result of the European-focused glorification of his voyage, but the date has so much more meaning than what is commonly understood and taught in schools.

The Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) curriculum requires teaching about Christopher Columbus in fifth grade. Standard 5.1.2 is about expeditions to the Americas by European explorers, and it focuses primarily on the geographical routes and the reasons for exploration. The only “impacts of exploration” the standard describes are related to the start of European colonization and trade diffusion. 

This current curriculum is flawed because it fails to recognize and teach the harm that resulted from Columbus’s voyage. What many don’t know is Columbus kept a diary of his discoveries throughout his expedition, and in one entry he wrote about the indigenous people: “They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them.” This is representative of the mindset that other cultural groups existed for the sole purpose of exploitation by Europeans. This idea was taken into full effect later, as Columbus and his people enslaved upwards of 500 Native Americans, 200 of them dying on ship back to Europe.

In addition to the the death and enslavement of numerous indigenous people, sexual abuse of women and girls was also prevalent across tribes in contact with the Spanish voyage.  Columbus wrote in a letter to a friend, “There are many dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to 10 are now in demand.”

The abuse does not end there. Bartolomé de las Casas, an 18 year old Spanish explorer, arrived in Hispaniola, the island where Columbus’s expedition landed, in 1502. He participated in the mistreatment of the Taíno Native American tribe alongside Christopher Columbus, and later confessed his crimes in A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. He wrote about the abuse, saying that the Spanish explorers “forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women and even women who had just given birth.” He went on to describe more disturbingly graphic details of the accounts.

The IDOE’s curriculum fails to even remotely allude to the destruction that resulted from Columbus’s voyage. As such, the material tends to glorify him and his discoveries, promoting a narrative that paints Columbus as the heroic figure who discovered the Americas. While his expedition did open the doors for European colonization, it also resulted in the genocide of indigenous people throughout the course of history. Teaching the current narrow perspective to fifth grade students is harmful because it contributes to the oppression of Native American people today. The current perspective and focus is disrespectful and fails to provide children with the understanding of historical racial oppression that will help them later in life.

In the interim, as an attempt to compensate for the educational gap brought about by the flawed Indiana education standards, history teachers at this school should try to include realistic details of the Spanish expeditions in World History and U.S. History classes. This would supplement the lack of awareness that is prevalent across the state and promote an environment that acknowledges the mistreatment of minority groups across history.