Reflections on Columbus as we prepare for Thanksgiving
by Sachi Feris
On “Columbus Day” I posted the song “1492” by Nancy Schimmel on Raising Race Conscious Children’s Facebook page. The song, an old favorite I have used with 4th and 5th grade students, details an alternative version of the mainstream “Columbus” story with a refrain of “But someone was already here” and questions whether Columbus actually “discovered” anything.
I told my three-year-old I had a surprise for her and turned on the computer. “We’re going to listen to a song that talks about the holiday called Columbus Day. Columbus Day is today and that is the reason you don’t have school today.”
We listened to the song once, which has quite a catchy tune, and right away, my daughter requested to hear it again.
This time, I paused the song to give her some explanation: “Columbus was a White man from Italy who took a ship a long, long time ago before he could take an airplane and ended up in the Americas which includes where we live in Brooklyn, which is part of the United States of America. And this holiday is about celebrating Columbus for finding the Americas. But he didn’t actually discover the Americans because there were already people living here who are called ‘Indians’ or ‘Native Americans.’”
“Right here?” my daughter asked, “in our house?”
“Not right here in our house,” I clarified for my literal three-year-old. “This was a long, long time ago and back then, our building wasn’t built yet. Just like there weren’t airplanes, there weren’t tall buildings back then either. And Brooklyn was filled with forest and fields of grass. But the Native Americans lived here in Brooklyn and all over the United States. That is why the song keeps saying ‘someone was already here.’ And little by little, the Native Americans got pushed out of the places they were living by Columbus and other White people who came here from Europe.”
“Are people going to come one day and tell us we have to leave?” my daughter asked.
“No,” I reassured her, “unfortunately that does still happen today like in the book with Lakas, (I referenced a book we have read about a community being pushed out of the building where they live) but it’s not going to happen to us.” This makes me think, of course, about my White privilege and class privilege that enables this promise to my daughter. Telling the story of the Native Americans has present-day parallels to non-Native American people (in addition to the continuing legacy of Native Americans); and the impact of this conversation on children who do not live in a safety net is, of course, different than the impact it has on my daughter.
“Maybe it will happen one day in 100 years,” she told me, “and then we can make signs and say ‘No!’”
“You mean protest,” I told her. “OK, that’s what we would do,” I affirmed. “But it’s not going to happen to us.”
I led the conversation back to Columbus Day: “I don’t really like the idea of calling this holiday Columbus Day because it is really unfair and sad what happened to the Native Americans. I prefer to remember what happened to the Native Americans on this day. What do you think? Should we remember Columbus or the Native Americans today?”
“I think both,” my daughter shared.
“OK, that’s fair.” I told her.
We listened to the song again a few more times, my daughter starting to try to sing along.
Later that day, the song stuck in my head, I kept singing the refrain,
“The Inuit and Cherokee, the Aztec and Menomonee, Anaconda and The Cree (clap clap) Columbus sailed across the sea, but someone was already here.”
“Those are the names of the different tribal nations of Native Americans who already lived here in the Americas,” I told my daughter.
“Mamma,” my daughter told me, “if you keep singing that song again and again someone is going to come and tell us we have to leave our house.”
“No,” I continued to reassure her, “that is not going to happen. And when we talk about what happened in the past, it’s a way to help make sure it doesn’t happen again…because if we learn about the unfair things that happened in the past, we can stand up and protest if something similar happens in the future.”
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a three-year-old daughter and newborn son.