Robert Cook is managing director of Teach For America’s Native Achievement Initiative.
Today federal and state workers are taking the day off in honor and celebration of Columbus Day. Retail and department stores are marking items off for their annual Columbus Day Sales and our nation’s school children are enjoying the end of a 3-day weekend.
Beginning in 1934 when President Roosevelt signed Columbus Day into law as a federal holiday, we take the second Monday in October off as a nation to honor the historical discovery of the “New World.” At least that is what I learned as a young boy in school. Today, as a grown man and an enrolled citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation here in South Dakota, I have another take on this national holiday and the education myths of Christopher Columbus. I am proud to say I do not honor this day as Columbus Day.
Columbus wasn't the first European to land in America; in fact he didn’t even “land” on any of the main lands of the Americas. Historical evidence points to Leif Erickson, as the first European to land and settle a Norse village on Newfoundland some 500 years earlier. When Columbus did reach land in 1492, he “discovered” islands in the Caribbean already inhabited by scores of diverse and indigenous Native tribes.
Columbus was so impressed by the gentle hospitality and sharing of these indigenous islanders that he left for Spain only to return to the islands with the intention to seize land, conquer the indigenous tribes as slave labor or kill those that resisted. Within a few years most of the original inhabitants on those islands were wiped out. Thus began the wholesale slaughter of tribal nations in North, Central and South America known as the Conquest. If we knew of the true exploits of Columbus and his successors, we would be shocked and embarrassed to celebrate the inhumane and unethical treatment of the indigenous tribes of the Americas his “discovery” ushered in.
My home state of South Dakota is the only state in the nation to call this day, Native American Heritage Day. Signed into law in 1989 by the late governor George Mickelson, our state takes the day off to honor the Oceti Sakowin, or the seven tribal nations of South Dakota. And in Hawaii, Columbus Day is not honored. Instead, the second Monday in October is known as Discoverer’s Day in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands.
We must take action to teach history accurately and respectfully. Historical evidence supports the fact that indigenous tribes inhabited this continent for thousands of years. My tribe, the Oglala Lakota, teaches that our ancestors originated in the Black Hills of South Dakota and our creation stories, that date from time immemorial, tell us how we came to be. I believe it is time to learn the truth behind the legend of Columbus Day and move forward to reconcile and honor a day for the original inhabitants of this nation, people who are rich and diverse in cultural history, language and spirituality.
I take today to honor the history of my people, reflect on the incredible contributions we made to this country and take pride in the fact that we are still here!
Robert Cook is managing director of Teach For America’s Native Achievement Initiative. Cook has served for 20 years as a teacher and administrator in American Indian education. Most recently, he was principal of Pine Ridge High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In May, he was appointed by President Obama to serve on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, where he will advise Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on federal efforts to improve education for Native children and adults. An enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe (Oglala Lakota), Cook received a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from Black Hills State University and a master’s degree in education administration from Oglala Lakota College. He is married to Daphne Richards-Cook, and they have two sons who attend public school in Rapid City, S.D.