Columbus Day Interviews with the Zinn Education Project October 11, 2011

The Zinn Education Project is honored that Bill Bigelow and Julian Hipkins were invited on Jay Winter Nightwolf’s October 10, 2011 WPFW radio program to rethink Columbus Day in a special segment entitled, “The Beginning Invasions: Genocidal Practices, Terrorism, and Mass Destruction of the Western Hemisphere.” Bigelow is co-director of the Zinn Education Project and curriculum editor for Rethinking Schools, and Hipkins is a D.C high school teacher at Capital City Public Charter School  who regularly uses Zinn Education Project resources.

Jay Winter Nightwolf opened the program by reading a chapter about the colonization, massacre, and enslavement of Tainos in Hispaniola by Columbus and his men from A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. “This was only a small part of what happened to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas,” he pointed out after the reading. He then posed the questions: “What has happened as a result of these inhumane transgressions or unforgivable sins to present-day Native America? Will Native America ever recover? If not, how can the Indigenous people of the Western hemisphere ever begin to feel better about present day circumstances? Who do we turn to? Should we fight to remain and regain our real sovereignty? What can the non-Native people do to make amends and improve relationships with the Indigenous people of the Western hemisphere?”

A group of people, mostly of Indigenous descent, and Hipkins and Bigelow, non-Native participants, who responded to these questions. Bigelow focused on curricular activism as a tool for combating “the silencing and the erasure of Native perspectives,” the “celebration of colonialism,” and “this project of extinction.”

He explained why harmful attitudes towards Native peoples and their histories persist in the U.S. today, saying, “Thanks to ‘No Child Left Behind ‘and ‘Race to the Top’ and a lot of the education reforms, the curriculum is moving away from schools, moving away from classrooms, moving away from school districts even, to these handful of big corporate curricular producers;  the textbook companies. Obviously, they have an interest in kids not having a critical perspective on the world, not asking critical questions. We need to have educators of conscience, together with people who are listening to this show and people who are on this show, really putting a lens down on the curriculum and saying, ‘Whose lives are valued here and who’s being left out? What are the silences in the curriculum? What are the lies in the curriculum? And how can we address that?’ This is why we started the Zinn Education Project, which was an effort to offer teachers tools to teach a more honest, more critical, more multicultural curriculum, so that they wouldn’t be so reliant on what is the official story in textbooks, which as I say is getting worse and worse.”

Hipkins illustrated how such curricular activism plays out beneficially in the classroom through its honesty and relevance to students’ lives. Citing one lesson plan in particular distributed by the Zinn Education Project; “The People vs. Columbus,” he recalled, “This look of almost betrayal on their faces, to feel like ‘You know, I’m in 11th grade, and this is the first time I’m hearing about Columbus being responsible for the genocide of millions of people.’ So then when we get into the trial it becomes very, very, very emotional. At the end they have to assign blame to the people involved with the genocide and it’s very interesting — especially the part about the system, because we usually get into a big discussion about how much does the system in general have to play in people’s actions and they make a lot of connections with the present day system in the United States, which is very powerful.”

Further quotes from the program:

Jay Winter Nightwolf:

“This was only a small part of what happened to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. What has happened as a result of these inhumane transgressions or unforgivable sins to present-day Native America? Will Native America ever recover? If not, how can the Indigenous people of the Western hemisphere ever begin to feel better about present day circumstances? Who do we turn to? Should we fight to remain and regain our real sovereignty? What can the non-Native people do to make amends and improve relationships with the Indigenous people of the Western hemisphere? After all, more than 600 treaties were signed in good faith by my ancestors. Some were forced to sign treaties at gunpoint or sword point. They didn’t want to sign those treaties. But many of our leaders signed those treaties with hopes of protecting our people, with hopes of not killing our babies, raping and murdering our women, beheading our daughters. These were some of the many reasons why our people signed these treaties. And I guarantee you this: Up to this point in history you will never ever find any of this in any of HIS books. HIS story. [His]tory. History. Today we will have the opportunity to hear from some of us that are descendants of the very people that Columbus tried to destroy and non-Native people that understand the plight of present day Native America. They understand because their hearts are in the right place. They have not lost their humanity. There’s a lot to think about on this day. When you pass by the Union Station in Washington, D.C., you see this big statue of Cristobal Colon; Christopher Columbus. What a lie. This man is without honor. He has nothing that he’s ever given to us of any kind. Again, he was a thief, a murderer, a rapist, a slave trader, and most of all, one of the most notorious liars to ever find his way across the Atlantic Ocean.”

“I saw where President Obama signed this Columbus Day again into a federal holiday. My question to you Mr. President: Did you read what you signed? I don’t think you did. You need to check the people around you, and look at the games they’re running in getting you to sign that will serve only to hurt humanity.”

“How do we connect the past with the present to let the dominant culture know that we are still here and our cultures need to be respected and valued?”

“How would you approach government and government officials to make some amends, and if not amends, legislate some changes?”

“I want to let everybody know that right now Occupy DC is rallying at Freedom Plaza to protest Columbus Day, and they’re going to be leaving Freedom Plaza momentarily headed to that statue of Columbus at the Union Station. So if any of you are out there once this program is over, go down and help them. Become a part of it. Be bearers of the truth…Take it to the streets. Get it out of the suites. Deals are made in suites. Take it to the streets where it’s out in front of everybody so they’ll know that we’re not playing games with them.”

Bill Bigelow:

“I think a lot of the silencing and the erasure of Native perspectives begins today, for a lot of kids, because the Columbus story is really a lot of kids’ introduction to the- at least in the curriculum-between  different cultures confronting each other and different races confronting each other and different nations confronting each other. It’s many kids introduction to foreign policy, if you think of it that way. And it’s kids’ introductions to history, because it comes around today, in their kindergarten or their early elementary years, and it teaches some very bad lessons. It’s a celebration of colonialism and it’s a silencing of Native perspectives. I begin my U.S. history class, and I ask students, ‘Say, who’s that guy who came from Spain and they say he discovered America? Who’s that guy?’ And every student will know Christopher Columbus. And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, and who was here?’ Some students will say Indians. But I’ll say, ‘No, the particular name. What was the nationality?’ I’ve never in 30 years of teaching- I’ve never had anybody say Tainos. So I’ll say to kids, ‘Isn’t that interesting that we all know the name of this one European guy, this white guy who came over here, but not a single one of us knows the nationality of the people who were here first, and there were millions of them, and how do we account for that?’ It alerts kids to the fact that they have had an education that has silenced Native perspectives.”

“I just want to emphasize again how this project of extinction…how it begins in the curriculum. Noam Chomsky talks about how the world and the media is divided up into the owners and the un-people, and I think that Native people are very often, and really from the very first, presented to children as un-people…there’s no questions raised whatsoever for little kids. And so they have to puzzle it out-‘Well, golly, obviously there’s some people who are really powerful in the world and other people who don’t even have the right to their own lands.’ So that is just kind of presented as a fact, of world history, and of life today for kids. And that’s really a problem because that’s an orientation towards the world and towards people-Native peoples-but also just the silenced of the world- the un-people- that is carried into today. And that’s what’s so insidious with this, is that it lingers in kids’ consciousness.”

“We need people of conscience, and we need Native American organizations, and we need people who are going to bring a critical eye to the curriculum to evaluate it and to become active around it; to become curricular activists. Because what’s happening right now, thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and a lot of the education reforms, the curriculum is moving away from schools, moving away from classrooms, moving away from school districts even, to these handful of big corporate curricular producers; the textbook companies. Obviously, they have an interest in kids not having a critical perspective on the world, not asking critical questions. We need to have educators of conscience, together with people who are listening to this show and people who are on this show, really putting a lens down on the curriculum and saying, ‘Whose lives are valued here and who’s being left out? What are the silences in the curriculum? What are the lies in the curriculum? And how can we address that?’ This is why we started the Zinn Education Project, which was an effort to offer teachers tools to teach a more honest, more critical, more multicultural curriculum, so that they wouldn’t be so reliant on what is the official story in textbooks, which as I say is getting worse and worse.”

Julian Hipkins:

“It’s just a continuation of the misrepresentation of history in the schools today. Unfortunately, students oftentimes think that the Tainos simply perished in the past and moved on, but it’s really ridiculous for people to say those things, because obviously Europeans are still here, so why wouldn’t Tainos still be here? It’s like saying; well did the Europeans die off? No of course not, they’re still here. So Tainos are still here. Also, I was so happy; Last month in the Smithsonian magazine there was an article that came out: What became of the Tainos? And I had my students read it and they were so happy to read it, because it was so difficult for me, as an educator, to find up to date information about the Tainos. It was like, you know, Columbus came, and almost 3 million died, and let’s move on.”

“In my classroom a few weeks ago, we did an activity called the People vs. Columbus and it’s a trial where students take on the roles of the individuals involved with the exploitation of the Americas…and the system is actually on trial also. It’s a very, very, interesting activity, because students—Number  one, we use “A People’s History of the United States” as our classroom textbook- so they begin reading, and the looks on their faces when they come in and say ‘You know, I didn’t realize Columbus did these things.’ This look of almost betrayal on their faces, to feel like ‘You know, I’m in eleventh grade, and this is the first time I’m hearing about Columbus being responsible for the genocide of millions of people- you know, ordering people’s hands to be chopped off. So then when we get into the trial it becomes very, very, very emotional. At the end they have to assign blame to the people involved with the genocide and it’s very interesting- especially the part about the system, because we usually get into a big discussion about how much does the system in general have to play in people’s actions and they make a lot of connections with the present day system in the United States, which is very powerful.”

“I believe that there needs to be more attention paid to the plight of Native Americans and that can be through a lot of different ways. In my classroom, a project that my students are working on right now is called a ‘Change the Name Proposal,’ and the students have to come up with a new name for the Washington football team. And for many students in my class who are Washington football team fans, when I show them material on where the name [Washington Redskins] came from, one book I use is “Do All Indians Live in Teepees” that I bought from the American Indian museum. And when they read that, they looked at me almost in shame and said ‘I didn’t know that. I didn’t realize that. That’s terrible…’”

“It really hit me while I was teaching in Japan. I lived and taught in Japan for eight years. One day I was in the classroom, just one of my students and myself, a man-to-man lesson as it’s called, and he said ‘Are you from America?’ I said ‘Yes.’ He said ‘What city?’ I said I grew up in the DC area. He said, ‘Oh so you like the Washington football team there?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Well what does their name mean?’ … I said, ‘It refers to Native Americans.’ He said, ‘Oh is it a good term?’ I sat there and said, ‘No, actually it’s a racial slur.’ And he said, ‘Well, why do they use it? Isn’t Washington D.C. the capital city?’ And it just hit me at the moment how ridiculous it is at this day and age that the capital city of the United States of America has their football team with a racial slur. It’s absurd. My students are actively working on different proposals for a new name. I don’t know that they will accept it, but we are planning on sending it to the Washington football team to see if we can do something about that.”

By Jozi T. Zwerdling, intern with the Zinn Education Project

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