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Countering Myths about Christopher Columbus with ‘A Coyote Columbus Story’
Sharing this post on social media? Use this description to make it accessible: [Image description: Illustration from ‘Coyote Columbus Story’ by Thomas King & William Kent Monkman. Coyote, wearing shorts and high-tops, asks to play ball with Christopher Columbus and his men. Columbus peers suspiciously over the upside-down map of ‘The New Route to India’ as his men unload muskets, machine guns, and weaponry onto the shore in the background.]
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What a fun way to end school celebrations of genocide
I’m not going to get into details on vile human-trafficker and mass-murderer Christopher Columbus. You probably know about that massive jerk by now.
AND YET – It’s 2020 and throughout the US, teachers still celebrate ‘Christopher Columbus Day’ in their classrooms. Maybe because he never set foot here? Is that what we’re celebrating? He killed and enslaved less people here than in Central America? Yay?
(Seriously though – wtf, how is this still a thing?)
But I WILL go on about this SPECTACULAR story that doesn’t just dismantle myths and stereotypes, it pies them in the face with a wild cackle.
Trusting kids with the ‘both…and’ of history’s horrors and the joy we need to survive it
A Coyote Columbus Story engages kids with the deeply powerful but mistake-prone trickster, Coyote. This is an adventure in Indigenous storytelling, a subversive critique at colonist consumerism, and an Indigenous perspective of historical events. This is how we tackle hard topics in an age-appropriate way. A really funny way.
Maybe too funny? Is it disrespectful for us to be laugh so hard about at an act so horrifying?
For those who have said about this book that genocide is not funny, there is this: Humor has been our salvation. If we couldn’t laugh, sometimes at really awful stuff, there wouldn’t be any of us here.
With that – this is an intro book to get kids started on the topic of colonization, genocide, and slavery – one that doesn’t send them spiraling into despair. A quick antidote for the construction paper Santa Maria our kids bring home from school in October.
I think the problem is when we stop at the easy laughs, and refuse to carry these conversations into the deeper, harder evolution of reconciling history and how we apply this knowledge today. So many settlers are afraid to talk about colonization with kids beyond that cowardly myth: ‘Europeans came. The Indigenous people died. Even though some unfair stuff happened, it’s out of our hands, because they’re all dead and we don’t have to concern ourselves with their suffering.’
But no – this story pokes that myth in the ribs – a hard, conspiratorial reminder that Indigenous people survive. Taíno and Arawak people targeted by Columbus are still here. They created innovate ways to survive the violence and erasure of colonialism that continues today. Still fighting for their rights, their families, and still pushing against an active tide of genocide.
So we enjoy this book – especially on Indigenous Peoples’ Day in October. And then we follow it up with deeper books about our responsibility to amplify Indigenous activism and decolonize our local spaces.
Shade on victim-blaming
Those of us who benefit from oppression love a passive voice. “The Indigenous people were enslaved and killed.” No one is killing and enslaving them. They’re just…ending up like that! Nothing to be done if they’re going to get themselves into that kind of predicament! ::Brushes dust off hands::
As Indigenous literature scholars such as Dr. Deb Reese (American Indians in Children’s Literature) and Jean Paine Mendoza (A Broken Flute) have pointed out – settler’s favorite children’s book about colonization (ex: Encounter) blames Taíno people for failing to recognize the warning signs of invasion. This trope shows up again and again both in kidlit and resources for higher education.
We blame Indigenous people for failing to fight back (but when they did, we call them ‘savages.’)
We blame them for naivete, for failing to respond to starving visitors and immigrants with death and internment (we Americans do so love to denigrate compassion and humane treatment!)
We blame them for daring to be in the wrong place, in the wrong time (The wrong place being their home.). For leaving such a tempting resource out where invaders could see it – a land they had cultivated with roads, infrastructure, and soil they had enriched through years of agriculture. Kind of like blaming a home-invasion on a person who took great care of their house.
Which sounds a lot like blaming survivors of harassment and violence for leaving the house / not leaving the house / smiling too much / refusing to smile / asking for it …ad nauseam.
A Coyote Columbus Story refuses to do that. The responsibility of violence and harm belongs on the people who chose to do main, kill, and enslave others. We must stop blaming the survivors of colonization for being easy pickings. Or, as reasonable folks would put it – empathetic human beings who don’t mug each other.
Although we get hints of Columbus’s crimes against humanity, he’s not actually centered in this story – the way he is in most. His human targets are no longer accessories, but people with a rich cultural history long before he showed up. People who are innovative, smart, with agency. People who, as Claudia Fox Tree, Arawak educator, can tell you – survived.
This story is not just about the past. It is alarmingly relevant today. This is the perfect cautionary tale – for many of us who benefit from colonization, who continue to erase and ignore Indigenous people, and who exploit and devastate the land:
You better watch out or this world is going to get bent
But what about this federal holiday celebrating a supremacist Columbus as an Italian American?
Okay first – Columbus never set foot in the land currently known as North America. So let’s get the out of the way. He was not a ‘product of his time’ as no other individual – before or since, as “he enslaved five thousand Indigenous people through his career. More than any other individual in history, ever.”
Which is to say – your average Genoese person was not, at the time, nor now – a brutal murderer and slaver. Suggesting Columbus is representative of Italian Americans in the past or present is – kind of offensive?
Folks who oppose Indigenous Peoples Day like to reduce Italian American heritage to Columbus (who himself was brought back to Spain in chains for crimes against his own men.) These advocates are claiming that by acknowledging the history of this one jerk, we’re doing… reverse-racism against white people and making it “a crime to be white.”
Aside from the fact that talking about the impacts of genocide and not celebrating your crush with a federal holiday is not the same as criminalizing your identity. (Although honey, that’s a thing, just not a valid threat to you.) This particular line came from a group who claimed both ending Columbus day to be an attack on white people, and in the same rant, denied Italian Americans hold the identity or privileges of whiteness in 2018’s America. PICK A LANE, LADY.
This was in a city hearing where a group of Fox News viewers went on to heckle an Indigenous mother into tears as she tried to explain the impact of schools celebrating Columbus Day on her child.
Which is all to say – folks who can’t acknowledge the truth about Columbus are not the inclusive representation of Italian American culture they claim. Just a small subset who value European culture, and lives as supreme above the safety and dignity of Indigenous people. Which is a fancy, tap-dancing way of saying: white supremacists.
The US holiday of Columbus Day was initially based a fictionalized novel by Washington Irving (where Columbus was a hero and adventurer, rather than a guy who was terrible at basic geography, who went full-on monster). The holiday itself was orchestrated by Generoso Pope (1892-1950), who held the job of perpetuating Mussolini’s fascist propaganda throughout the US.
(So if you are wondering, yes, to be anti-Columbus is to be anti-fascist. If you thing fascism is shitty and don’t want it in the US – THAT IS A GOOD THING.)
The US developed a virtue signal holiday to welcome Italian Americans into the folds of whiteness, in the standard ploy to divide poor European immigrants, Indigenous people, and Africans displanted by enslavers from rising up against a common oppressor. An olive branch of “We will stop lynching you if you assimilate to whiteness. Here’s a holiday to show our good will!”
You might also like: How the myth of ‘Reverse Racism’ reinforces white supremacy
And in true model-minority fashion, it worked. For a time.
However, compassionate Italian Americans have always resented our government linking their heritage to Columbus and his acts. As we gain more access to the voices of Indigenous people, we are becoming aware of the true history behind colonization, and our role as settlers in perpetuating that harm by celebrating their genocide. Progressive Italians are starting to resent being tied to the legacy of Columbus – and are organizing to work in solidarity with Indigenous people. Like our good friends in the Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day Massachusetts, for example.
To add fuel to the flames, before Italians were welcomed into whiteness, earlier versions of the KKK were against the creation of Columbus day. Which completely derailed the point Indigenous people have been making this whole time – Columbus Day shouldn’t be a thing not because Italian Americans don’t count as white (or do they? That lady really confused me), but because Italian Americans are not a monolith – and they are certainly not represented by this bottom-feeder Columbus.
In fact – using a violent terrorist as the monolithic representation for entire group of people with an ethnic identity is kind shitty. Who wants that? SERIOUSLY – WHO WOULD WANT THAT?!
St. Paddy’s day (not federally recognized bank holiday, but still) is fun, and I think the St. Patrick was generally a good guy. But you know what? If I, as an Irish Bostonian (we do St. Paddy’s HARDCORE) found out he murdered babies and fed them to dogs – I would be COMPLETELY DONE with both the man and any day honoring him. I would be 100% okay handing that day over to survivors of his attacks so we can boost their truth and we can reconcile as a community. And if I didn’t believe his detractors, I could still do my parades and wear green and, for the Irish part of my culture at least, I would face no discrimination or negative consequences for letting St. P go.
Italian Americans demand better representation
I don’t want to spend too much time centering the settlers and white folks in this – but this is all to say, to both my family and friends who are Italian Americans – I agree. You deserve better than this brutal stereotype. So we’re working on a children’s book list celebrating Italian culture, Italian authors & Italian American stories that show how wonderful and non-murderous Italian Americans really are. For my 2nd-gen Italian grandma, my kids of Italian descent, my cousins, uncles, and friends – I hope you’ll leave a comment with your kids’ favorite books celebrating their heritage and ethnicity. Columbus is a cracked and distorted funhouse mirror that doesn’t reflect Italian readers. You are the badass folks who founded the anti-fascist movement and fought against redlining! You deserve accurate representation free of the stereotypes and lies.
You might also like: How to Subvert Racist Gate-keeping in Education
Parenting is Praxis:
These conversations have to go somewhere. We can’t just read a book for ‘awareness’ and consider our work done. Here are a few ways we transform our family discussions from A Coyote Columbus Story into action:
- Follow Indigenous leadership: We found our local indigenous nations and looked for ways to follow their lead, support their initiatives, and educate our communities on how to decolonize.
- The Indigenous Peoples’ Day Toolkit is designed to get you started. This year, we read the Bear, Horse, and Sparrow story in the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Toolkit to counter the construction-paper Santa Marias and other genocide-celebratory nonsense my kids pick up at school. This story serves as a launchpad for settler kids to recognize their role in decolonization.
- As parents and community members, we’ve been supporting the UAINE in instituting Indigenous Peoples’ Day in our city as a first step to truth and reconciliation for the past two years.
- This year, we’re working in relationship with Elizabeth Solomon, member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, in creating an IPD event in our city.
- Support voting access for Indigenous people by donating to the Native American Civil Rights Fund.
- We keep talking about this – like every conversation here, this is something we need to continue talking about. Here are a list of guided discussion questions to continue what we experience in this book with kids.
You might also like: Kids Books Dismantling The Myth of a ‘First Thanksgiving’
Read this book along with…
This isn’t a one-and-done conversation. We need to bring this conversation back to kids from multiple angles. Here are a few more books pick up when you set this one down:
- Fry Bread, We Are Water Protectors & The People Shall Continue – Affirming the refrain ‘We are still here’
- Coyote Tales – A short chapter book by the same author, Thomas King. Such fun!
- Find more children’s books to honor Indigenous Peoples Day
You may also like: Following Indigenous Leadership in Climate Justice
Is this #OwnVoices?
Author: Thomas King (he/him) is of Cherokee and Greek descent, and is not enrolled in the three federally recognized Cherokee nations due to family separation. (Enrollment is super complicated, thanks to an intentionally destructive legacy of US legislation).
Illustrator: William Kent Monkman (he/him) is of Swampy Cree & English-Irish descent, and is a member of the Fisher River Band in Manitoba.
How we calculate the overall awesomeness score of books.
Transparency & Cahoots!
We purchased a copy of A Coyote Columbus Story, because the Earthquakes read it frequently. Make sure to check it out of your local library to keep it in circulation, and perhaps grab your own copy while supporting local indie bookstores on Bookshop.
You should definitely check out: The Indigenous Peoples’ Day Family Action Toolkit
Stay Curious, Stand Brave, and Support Indigenous Voting Rights
If my work makes it easier for you to raise kind & courageous kiddos, you can keep these resources free for everybody by sharing this post with your friends and reciprocate by supporting my work directly.
But if your resources are limited – support the Native American Civil Rights Fund first. I have easy access to voting – but the US is still blocking many Indigenous people from voting, and they’re working to remove those barriers.
Psst: Here’s a list of guided discussion questions that we’ve used with the Earthquakes while reading this book.