Yesterday, both kids came home with Columbus Day-related artwork. Our Kindergarten son came home with a semi-elaborate poster of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and our daughter had constructed a similar boat with paper attached to a pencil. As I looked at these cute little pieces, I thought of what a colleague told me recently about the tall ships returning to Boston. There was a lot of hullabaloo about these tall ships sailing into Boston Harbor, lots of positive press and fanfare; this colleague said an African American friend of hers told her that every time he looks at a tall ship, he is reminded of his ancestors being forcibly brought here. For him, those ships are nothing to celebrate. I know for many people, Columbus Day is not merely a day off, but a day of mourning. So I flexed my brain a bit, and tried to broach the topic with the kids.
“What did you learn about these boats in school?”
“It’s the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.”
“Yeah, and they belonged to Christopher Columbus.”
“And what did you learn about Christopher Columbus?”
“He was trying to find a way to…to somewhere…and he came here.”
“Right, he discovered this land.”
“Well, let’s talk about that a bit. Were there people here already?”
“Yes! Native Americans were here.”
“So did Columbus really discover this land?”
“Okay, how about if someone from California who had never been to Massachusetts came to our town and they said they ‘discovered’ it. What if they came to our house and decided that since they had never been here and didn’t know our house existed that they could now take the house from us and force us out. Would that be right?”
“No. This is our house!” My daughter was taking on the opposing point of view with her overly empathetic disposition. My son’s eyes were starting to glaze over.
“Right, so isn’t that kind of what Christopher Columbus did?”
“Sort of, but what happened to all the Native Americans who lived here Daddy?”
“Some of them are still here, but lots of them died. Lots of people think that Christopher Columbus actually hurt them.”
“That’s not good.”
This is as far as I would get this time. I tried to push it a little further, but my son started equating what I was saying with a critique of his artwork. I knew that I had reached my daughter though, and a few minutes later when my son was singing that traditional Columbus song, where he “sailed the ocean blue,” she asked him to stop because he was making her sad. Then it turned into a battle of who could make the other more angry, him singing the song louder and her saying he was going to make her cry. Normal sibling rivalry using our nation’s history of genocide. What proud parents we are.
A good friend who was an elementary music teacher for many years used to teach this song by Nancy Shimmel, and I think I’ll be passing it along to the music teacher at my kids’ elementary school. Enjoy!
Words and music © 1991 by Nancy Schimmel
In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue,
It was a courageous thing to do
But someone was already here.
Columbus knew the world was round
So he looked for the East while westward bound,
But he didn’t find what he thought he found
And someone was already here.
The Innuit and Cherokee,
The Aztec and Menominee,
The Onadaga and the Cree;
Columbus sailed across the sea,
But someone was already here.
It isn’t like it was empty space,
Caribs met him face to face.
Could anyone discover the place
When someone was already here?
So tell me, who discovered what?
He thought he was in a different spot.
Columbus was lost, the Caribs were not;
They were already here.