Our View: Updating the history books | TheUnion.com

Our View: Updating the history books

What must our middle school history teachers think of what’s happened to Christopher Columbus?

Built up to near demigod status, Columbus looms large in America’s history. Discovering the New World, bringing its riches to Europe, “enlightening” the natives — it was all there in the history books. There’s even a mnemonic device to remember when he first sailed.

It’s a quaint history when seen through a sixth-grade lens. Columbus bridging two worlds, then a little over 100 years later men in funny hats having the first Thanksgiving with the continent’s native people.

But the truth, all of it, tends to reshape how we view our past, and leads us to ask new questions.

Questions like: Should we continue to honor — venerate, even — Columbus?

Admittedly, this isn’t exactly a new question. It’s been rumbling through the nation for decades, though this year was the first time a U.S. president formally acknowledged Indigenous People’s Day in lieu of Columbus Day.

However, the question of Columbus isn’t answered by what we choose to call a certain day. It goes straight to the heart of the history Americans use to identify themselves.

There’s a reason many people oppose the removal of certain statues from public squares. These are heroes to many people. They’ve shaped history, which in turn has shaped cities, states and country. Who wants to see their cherished symbols displaced?

Well, for one, the victims of those symbols.

The days of crafting statues of people who enslaved and killed other people, and placing them in spots of honor, have ended. We’re now in the days of our history lessons — in books and statues — providing context, nuance and the entire story.

This isn’t an erasure of history. It’s an expansion of it.

That expansion must include the Nisenan Tribe, which lived in what would become Nevada County when the first settlers arrived. The tribe once had federal recognition, which has since been lost. It’s working toward reinstatement, which would give it a seat at the table.

Shelly Covert, Nisenan spokeswoman, said her tribe can’t join the federal government’s Truth and Healing Commission because it doesn’t have that recognition. That must change, and we all need to pitch in to help make the commission worthy of its name with the Nisenans’ rightful place on it.

The Nisenan will continue working toward that goal, and the community can help.

For starters, we can educate ourselves about the tribe that lived here. The ‘Uba Seo gallery in Nevada City has periodic exhibits, and discussions about the Nisenan regularly are held in our county.

People can also donate to the Ancestral Homelands Reciprocity Program, which helps fund the Nisenan’s efforts for recognition.

Our children should learn about the Nisenan in California history classes, just as children in other parts of the country learn about the Creek and Cherokee tribes. They can visit the cultural sites, seeing first hand how the Nisenan lived.

And at the same time they can learn about Columbus and what he brought to this continent, the complete history.

Our children are smart. They can learn about all aspects of Columbus, Manifest Destiny and everything that comes with them, and realize that they’re neither completely good nor evil. History, just like people, is multifaceted. It should have neither a golden sheen nor a tatty cloth draping it. We’re the ones that have placed those, alternatively dressing up parts of our history as heroes or villains in our judgments in one moment or the next. That’s different than understanding and perhaps the beginning of wisdom concerning the great nation we aspire to be.

And, sure, our middle school teacher might celebrate or be upset about it, but that’s OK, because it’s past time we updated the history books.

The weekly Our View editorial represents the consensus opinion of The Union Editorial Board, a group of editors and writers from The Union, as well as informed community members. Contact the board at EditBoard@TheUnion.com

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