This past Monday served as a holiday for many U.S. citizens. Some celebrated Columbus Day, while others observed Native American Day or Indigenous People’s Day. All commemorated Oct. 12, the date when Christopher Columbus, sailing under the flag of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, landed on a small island in the Caribbean called Guanahani by the indigenous Taino people renaming it San Salvador.
Believing he had discovered a sea route to India, he named the inhabitants he encountered "Indians."
Throughout my K-12 school days, I learned about Columbus as the "discoverer of America" though he never actually reached the North American mainland. I did not learn of the subsequent annihilation of the indigenous people by the Spanish and other European explorers through disease, enslavement and overwork.
Nor did I learn that when the Spanish and Portuguese had exhausted the indigenous peoples, they turned to Africa ushering in what became known as the transatlantic slave trade.
Some of you might bristle at the attempt of state and local governments to rename Columbus Day, Native American Day or Indigenous People’s Day. As someone who teaches courses in United States, European and World History, I can understand the skepticism and sometimes anger at these "revisionist" histories.
However, intentional or not, this historic encounter that birthed the Columbian Exchange led the virtual elimination of indigenous peoples throughout Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. In seeing these events anew or "re-visioning" them from the perspective of the people and civilizations Columbus encountered, it allows contemporary indigenous people and others to view this day from another perspective.
As an interactive online poster from teachinghistory.org states "History is an Argument About the Past." It is not settled or definitive. History functions as a perspective or a narrative constructed by using historical artifacts and documents as well as critical thinking and historiographic analysis.
Though I had an extraordinary high school history and government teacher who had lived through the majority of the events we learned about in the 20th century, I don’t think he would have agreed with this understanding of the nature and process of writing and teaching history.
I remember him proudly displaying his notes that were a decade or two old by the time I took his class. Though our textbook was relatively new, we spent much of our class taking notes as Mr. Wingo lectured from a chalkboard completely full of information. Though the events of European or American history had not changed, the interpretations and data available had in those intervening decades.
How historians could have divergent views on the same events came into focus when a potential employer, after my lecture over the Brown v. Board of Education case, lamented that I did not refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression.
Recent efforts regarding the use of the New York Times’ 1619 Project as an American history curriculum has met with considerable criticism. The fact this project wants to "reframe U.S. history" by beginning with the importation of slaves in the Virginia colony in 1619 rather than the Declaration of Independence in 1776 demonstrates the importance that the United States and other nations place on its national history.
I believe history can and should be heard in not one voice but instead sung in a polyphony mirroring our national motto of E pluribus unum.
Nicolas Shump is a longtime educator and writer in northeast Kansas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.