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Holvino: Exploration and Exploitation

I’m glad Governor Scott has proclaimed today Indigenous Peoples' Day. And I hope we take more steps to celebrate and honor the history, culture and contributions of the Native Americans who inhabited this land before European settlement - and continue to live among us today - like the Abenaki and their descendants.

I also hope we continue to rethink our history by replacing some of our more dubious heroes with the everyday heroes who have survived and persevered, in spite of massive oppression.

Like most of us, I grew up celebrating Columbus Day as a major holiday to commemorate the discovery of America. In Puerto Rico we also observed the supposed discovery of Puerto Rico in November. And while the state of Vermont no longer officially recognizes Columbus Day, the date is still busy with weekend festivals, sales and other special activities.

Columbus has long been celebrated as one of history’s greatest heroes. But in his best seller book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen refutes the popular beliefs that Columbus discovered the Americas, and that the Native Americans he encountered were savages. Many others before Columbus had sailed to America, and lived and traded with its indigenous people successfully. What Columbus did was to claim America for largely white Europe. His voyages marked the beginning of an era of conquest, forced conversion to Catholicism and the destruction of civilizations already here - like those of the Aztecs and the Incas.

As a child, I remember being shocked to learn in school that Columbus sometimes cut off the hands of Puerto Rico’s indigenous Taino Indians when they failed to collect enough gold for the Spaniards.

Recently, I visited Seville and sat in the room where Columbus negotiated money and ships with Queen Isabella for his first trip. A large tapestry portrays his return from the ‘new world’ with gold, parrots, cotton and Indians in chains.

The intent was, no doubt, to celebrate a great feat worthy of future trips. But I, as a Latina, saw a sad depiction of exploitation, slavery and the genocide of my ancestors.

Evangelina Holvino is a creative non-fiction writer and a free-lance consultant on issues of social differences and justice in non-profit organizations.
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