Scholars discuss realities of Columbus Day at Syracuse University

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Native scholars discussed the continuing impact of
Christopher Columbus' legacy in a recent panel event at Syracuse
University. SU's College of Law building donned autumn-colored decor and
welcomed an audience of more than 50 students, residents and faculty
members on Oct. 10.

The three panelists -- Lori Quigley, Scott Lyons and Michael Taylor -- are
prominent New York state educators. The panel was moderated by professor
Robert Odawi Porter, director of the Center for Indigenous Law, Governance
and Citizenship at Syracuse.

The purpose of the panel, said Odie Porter, Syracuse's Assistant Provost of
Academic Affairs, was to discuss how to teach the symbol of Columbus. "We
want to give students alternative views of the Columbus myth."

The panel was part of a day-long Columbus Day education project at SU's
School of Education, said Porter. Guest faculty members lectured throughout
the day on Native issues in fields such as science, education and women's
studies. The day closed with a candlelit vigil outside the Syracuse student
center.

An emphasis on education was paramount to all of the day's events.

Quigley, Seneca, teaches education at Buffalo State College and is vice
chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Indian Education. She said
that teachers need to learn how to begin an honest dialogue about Columbus
with children of all ages.

"Some of the truer facts about Columbus have come out recently," she said,
adding that teaching resources and materials are starting to adapt to the
change. "I think that classroom teachers can do an awful lot with that."

Robert Porter asked the panelists if they thought young children could
handle a critical understanding of Columbus -- which is often violent and
conflicts with the dominant idea in American culture of Columbus as a hero.

"Kids tend to see people in history as 'nice' and 'not nice,' which is very
wise," said Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe, who teaches creative writing at
Syracuse.

Lyons said that we need to present children with an honest account of
history: "Let them decide who was and wasn't 'nice.'"

Teaching about the pain inflicted on Native communities by Columbus can be
difficult in a nation that sees his birthday as a paid day off from work,
said Quigley. The other panelists echoed this thought.

"Celebrating Columbus Day, like any national holiday, is an act of public
memory," said Lyons. Although many Americans don't stop to think about
this, he said he believes that the purpose of this act is to create a
common unit of value in the community.

"You have to ask, 'What kind of memory is beckoned forth from a common
celebration of Columbus?'" He said he worried about the kinds of values
that underlie the holiday: colonization, pain, injustice and even white
supremacy.

Lyons noted that the legacy of colonization is still at work today, putting
stress on Native communities in more ways than most Americans realize. The
loss of Native languages and cultural traditions, he said, amounts to a
literal genocide -- the loss of Native identity -- in today's society. He
said he hopes that a new understanding of the holiday will one day
highlight these realistic aspects of Columbus' arrival.

"There is simply no room for [Native] history -- the one we are still
living -- in the story of Columbus Day," Lyons said.

Some change in attitudes toward Columbus Day can be seen in educational
circles, said Quigley, noting that the academic calendar at Buffalo State
College now reads "Indigenous Peoples Day."

This sort of progress is easier in private schools than in state and
federal institutions, she said.

While these signs are encouraging, the panelists agreed that a true
mainstreaming of the new interpretation of Columbus Day is essential.

Taylor, a Seneca and a professor of Native American studies at Colgate
University, researches similar issues in the movement against Native
mascots in sports teams. He said that a strong Native opinion of what
Columbus Day really means is not enough to change widespread attitudes in
our society.

The panelists said that many Native teachers and scholars are working
toward this ultimate goal. They hope that more Americans will learn to see
the irony in Columbus Day celebrations.

"We have two national holidays named after individual people in this
country," said Quigley toward the end of the discussion. "One is named
after a man who fought against racial injustice. The other is named after a
man who brought slavery to our shores. They're polar opposites."