In 1492, just over half a millennium ago, Christopher Columbus set sail on his famous voyage across the Atlantic and opened up the Western Hemisphere for European exploration in the early years of the Renaissance. Many of us have off of school and work today to celebrate that momentous achievement. In school, I remember long history lessons the day before Columbus Day, where I would learn about Columbus’ three ships—the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria—and the incredible impact that Columbus’ landing on the West Indies island of Hispaniola had on the entire world. We talked about how Columbus’ voyage paved the way for a place of religious freedom and tolerance, and of course, the United States.
However, we avoided talking about how the indigenous Taíno people were all but wiped out by their encounters with Columbus—up to 85% of their population no longer lived within a couple decades because of smallpox, famine, enslavement, and forced intermarriage. Our teachers shielded us from the historical narrative of the Taíno people, not only their destruction but also the rich culture they had in the Caribbean and their impact on our current society. We never talked about how the names we use to describe so many things in our culture, from “canoe” to “hurricane” to my favorite, “barbecue” came from the Taíno people.