My Personal Journey from Columbus to Indigenous People’s Day

What are the narratives that we use to tell the story of America? As a descendant of 16th and 17th century French and English colonizers, history for me was never a question when I was a young child. My history teachers taught me that Columbus discovered America and only spoke of Indians as living in the past, as if the “Last of the Mohicans” was a fact. We were not taught to question. We were taught to celebrate the “discovery” of America by Columbus and the glory of the expansion for the United States, never once speaking of the damage caused by both to the people whose land was invaded and claimed for the benefit of European nations and immigrants to the Americas. As a child, I didn’t know any better. But, as I matured, I began to question everything. I knew that our nation was very diverse, but the stories were always limited to stories of European conquest and superiority.

Where were the stories of those people who were first displaced by the onslaught of colonization?

I needed to understand those voices that were silenced by time and circumstance.  I began to read and to dig deeper in order to do so.

It wasn’t until middle school that I began to truly understand how much was missing from history textbooks and the teaching about our Nation’s history . Why was I not taught about the violence and enslavement of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas? Why did we not talk about how European colonization changed the face of Native Nations forever?  How could we truly understand history without all of the moving parts? My own personal learning took me to libraries on a regular basis. Even the libraries had little on the culture of Indigenous Peoples. But, I was now on a quest for truths about people with cultures different from my own.

Fast forward to post college, in some of the earliest years of my teaching, I had two encounters that deeply changed my perspective and created within me a desire to learn the history that wasn’t told in our textbooks. I started teaching in a small rural school in Vermont. There, I was blessed to meet and work with Joseph and Marge Bruchac whose storytelling brought life to the Abenaki peoples whose land I was living and working on. Their perspectives gave rise to a new sense of urgency to teaching these oral traditions so  my students and I could begin to understand that the history looking west was and is different from the history looking east. Both together paint a picture of truths about our nation.

The second encounter I had after relocating back to Connecticut: I had the good fortune of meeting Trudie Lamb-Richmond, a member of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation. An educator herself, she met with a small group of teachers for a week-long summer workshop on Indigenous cultures at the Institute for American Indian Studies. It was here that I first watched the documentary: Columbus Didn’t Discover Us: Indigenous Perspectives on the Columbus Legacy. I watched as Indigenous Peoples from all over the Americas spoke about the impact of the invasions by Europeans on their cultures, both historical and in continued struggles over human rights and land rights. It was a powerful moment for me. How could I do a better job as an educator? As a human being?

My own journey to understand and to improve my ability to speak truth to my students took me to tea with Gladys Tantaquidgeon, Medicine Woman for the Mohegan Tribe. She and her family had started a museum to preserve indigenous culture in the 1930s, and she would spend her life fighting to educate people on the beauty of all Indigenous Peoples. Her quiet and unassuming presence that day as she spoke her truth would stick with me to this day. It would become a part of how I view teaching and learning: I use her quote often, “You can’t hate someone that you know a lot about.” Years later, I would have the opportunity to learn from other Elders of the Mohegan Tribe, thankful for their willingness to share their knowledge. I believe that my ongoing learning about Indigenous Peoples and their relationships to the natural world has made me a much better person.

As I have improved my understanding about Indigenous history, both local and throughout the United States and the rest of the Americas, I have also been able to provide my students with a more revealing and accurate look at the history of our nation.

My quest for understanding has led to interactions with Indigenous Peoples from across the country, and from experts in Indigenous culture, education, history, and law so that I could be a better teacher. Thank you to Douglas Peterson (Cheyenne River Sioux), Beth Regan (Mohegan), Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva), Bruce Duthu (Houma), Lee Francis IV (Laguna Pueblo), and so many others for helping me on this journey. Part of the work in teaching history is to get students to question, to discover and uncover, to look at history from many perspectives so that they may better understand the world from which we have grown, to the world in which we now live. It is our duty as educators to ensure that students know all of our nation’s history.  Can we celebrate and appreciate the freedoms we have? Yes. Can we also discuss the wrongs that were done as we grew as a nation?  Yes. The two are not mutually exclusive and both are equally as important in forming a complete picture.

We need to be modeling this behavior of understanding others for our students by continually questioning and seeking to be a “more perfect union.” Instead of thinking that I am born with rights, I choose to think that I was born with obligations to serve past, present, and future generations of students, all of whose stories and voices are interconnected. How do we create a world in which peace exists if we do not acknowledge the harm that has been done? Healing must occur in order to move past trauma and into a space where there is recognition and understanding of our need to work together. This happens because of resilience, hard work, time, and a continual cycle of new learning.

We can begin to understand the ideas of tribal sovereignty and history facing east. We can begin by having the history of Indigenous Peoples represented in our classroom libraries and in our inquiry lessons. Authors who are Navajo and Pueblo of Laguna, Mohegan, Abenaki, and others must be included in our work. Lessons written by Indigenous educators, and those created in conjunction with the same, must be used to teach all children so that they know, understand, and act to make change.

We can teach in a way that our students understand that history is complicated and one perspective never tells the whole story.

As educators, we must continue to learn and improve our own understanding of our nation- from the people history tried most assuredly to silence. What we can do is teach history that discusses these complicated issues. We can look at the past and talk about the impact the arrival of Columbus still has today. Non-native educators can benefit from inviting native speakers into their classrooms. We can partner with native schools to understand how the growth of the United States impacted their ancestors and continues to impact their way of life.

When I became the student, I realized that the teaching of the history of our nation must include discussions centered on genocide and trauma that has yet to be addressed. Boarding schools, child abduction, forced removal, and violence against women and children all occurred at the hands of the United States Government and its agents. Our history books have avoided discussing these issues. How can we ignore the fact that thousands of children were taken from their families in order for the United States to commit cultural genocide that was in fact begun during the time of Columbus? I couldn’t and still can’t. What we can do is teach the hard history that discusses these issues. In doing so, I have learned that I still have much to learn, and that our nation must continue to face our history, warts and all.

Over the last forty years, I have worked to help answer my own questions that only led to more questions.

My intent has been about helping to give voice to and celebrate the resiliency of a Peoples without whom our nation would not be as brilliant, in a way that respects their past as well as their present. It is about making sure our children know their nation’s full history. Our students need to understand that history is not just about the death of nations, but about the strength and resiliency of Peoples who survive as the world changes. In light of years of learning and uncovering our storied past, how do we still celebrate the “discovery of America,” when we have yet to discover all that there is to know about the people who were here long before they encountered Columbus and his expedition?

Today, many nations are actively engaged in revitalizing their cultures and languages. Indigenous writers, artists, musicians, and activists are working to preserve Indigenous knowledge. While preservation is so vitally important, so too is reconciling our past. Here in the United States, with the appointment this year of Deb Haaland as the U.S. Interior Secretary, an investigation into Native American boarding schools in the United States has finally begun: “...we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said.  September 30th of each year is now Orange Shirt Day both in Canada and the United States. It is a day to honor those taken as children who survived, and to remember those children who were taken from their families and never returned.

Should we still celebrate a man who began hundreds of years of genocide against a Peoples?  My answer is a resounding NO!

Columbus belongs in the annals of history as a conqueror, not an explorer.

His legacy is one of genocide and oppression in the name of God, Gold, and Glory. Our job is to make sure that our students know about, understand, and seek to learn more about the myriad tribal nations flourishing today in spite of everything they have endured for generations. It is long past time to make the second Monday in October Indigenous People's day all across the country.

Look to your local Indigenous nations to gain a better understanding of the issues.  Use Red Planet Books to improve your classroom libraries.  Look to Native Knowledge 360० for curriculum materials, webinars, and interactives to improve teaching about the history of our nation’s first inhabitants.  In all things, look for truth and understanding of the difficulties of our past, but also, more importantly, the contributions of all peoples to the tapestry called the United States of America.

LéAnn Murphy Cassidy, Ed.S. is the 2018 Gilder Lehrman Connecticut History Teacher of the Year, as well as a 2018 Connecticut State Teacher of the Year Finalist. She is in her thirty-fourth year of teaching, serving simultaneously as a lead teacher and master mentor for the last fourteen years. A member of the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies Board, LéAnn also serves on the Teacher Advisory Council for the National Constitution Center.

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