Christopher Columbus has been romanticized down through the ages.
Most of what we think we know about the Italian explorer is embedded in folklore, not fact, said Joella Byron-Dixon, an Oberlin High School senior.
“The more we learn about Columbus, the more we can acknowledge that he’s not a hero and he’s not a role model,” she told the Oberlin board of education May 23.
Byron-Dixon — on behalf of the Committee for Indigenous Peoples — is asking both the school system and city to pass resolutions denouncing Columbus Day and “tell the truth about our nation’s history.”
And she’s making headway.
In recent weeks, she has shared the terrifying findings of her OHS senior project: Columbus decimated the native peoples of Hispaniola — that’s modern day Haiti — in a matter of years through disease, slaughter, and the slave trade.
Upon arriving at the island, he described the native peoples as peaceful and generous and bragged that 50 of his men could subjugate the entire Arawak Indian tribe.
Byron-Dixon also found that Native Americans today are facing a cultural crisis.
Indigenous youths and adults are more likely to be killed by police than many other racial groups. Native youth suicide rates are three times higher than the national average. A third of high school students drop out, she said.
American Indians suffer transgenerational trauma, in which post-traumatic stress is genetically passed down. The younger generations are struggling to find a balance between their native traditions and mainstream American lifestyles.
Government statistics show Native Americans have high rates of unemployment and extreme poverty, and are less likely to have medical insurance.
Not only do American Indians have a very high rate of alcoholism but they abuse illegal drugs more than any other demographic group in the United States.
Often substance abuse problems go hand-in-hand with high rates of health issues such as diabetes and heart disease, and high rates of mental illness.
Oberlin can take a stand on behalf of American Indians, Byron-Dixon argued. It can declare Columbus Day defunct and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day each October.
The long tradition of the Oberlin Indians athletic teams was put to rest in 2007 when the board of education voted — to some outcry — to change its mascot to the Phoenix. Abolishing Columbus Day is the next logical step, Byron-Dixon said.
Board member Rosa Gadsden called for consideration of the proposal in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day. Fellow member Barry Richard said it warrants discussion but he believes the school system should remain apolitical and siding with Byron-Dixon may cross that line.
To be clear, the change would affect very little at the Oberlin Schools, where students do not get Columbus Day off and teachers give the holiday no instructional emphasis in the classroom.
The change, educators said, would be strictly symbolic.
Joella’s mother, Cyndi Byron-Dixon, said it would be an incredibly meaningful symbol and the school district should take a moral stance.
She said Columbus Day might not be observed, but it does appear on the calendar. “That could be replaced. That’s that’s being asked at this time,” she said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.