Columbus Day, IP Day
History is indeed written by the victors, and the best examples come with how subjugated (but not necessarily conquered) peoples are forced to learn a distorted version of their history.
This is especially the case with the way Western colonization of lands are depicted in history books, starting with a story line of lands that, if we are to believe the stories, had nothing and no one, until “discovered” by the West.
In both northern and southern America, Columbus Day, Oct. 12, is still a holiday in the United States and in several Latin American countries, marking the day in 1492 when Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo), an Italian sponsored by Spain’s Isabella I
and Ferdinand II, landed on an island in the Bahamas. That landing was transformed in history textbooks as “the discovery of America.” Everything before that is pre-Columbian, almost like BC (before Christ).
The narrative depicts Europeans taming the “New World,” bringing civilization to—oops, turns out there were people after all—well, savages.
While history is written by the victors in these narratives of the Western colonization of the world, we now find counter-histories emerging. Columbus Day has itself been renamed as International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, a time to correct “false historical narratives” as well as to assert the identities and cultures of indigenous peoples.
I was happy to see how these efforts have spilled over into public health and medicine, waking up yesterday to find a newsletter from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that moved away from its usual news about COVID-19 to feature International Indigenous Peoples’ Day with a podcast on the health situation of American Indians.
Dr. Melissa Walls of the Center for American Indian Health talked about how American Indians have been stereotyped in mass media as alcoholics and drug dependents, when surveys have shown that American Indians actually have a high percentage of people who totally abstain from alcohol.
Moreover, Walls pointed out how American Indian communities have played major roles in pneumonia and meningitis vaccine trials and in community health. In the early 1980s, a community-
based health program in the White Mountain Apache reservation developed oral rehydration therapy, now used throughout the world to treat diarrhea and saving thousands of lives each year.
Listening to the podcast, I did think also of how “global” this stereotyped American Indian has been, not so much because of history books than of Hollywood. We all grew up with those cowboys and Indians films, of the Lone Ranger and his loyal Tonto. (Wait a minute, how come despite having Tonto with him, he is still a Lone Ranger?)
Most people in the world will never hear about how American Indians, as well as other indigenous peoples in both north and south America, were victims of genocides. Survivors were not much better off, driven off their lands or limited to small reservations, their cultures and identity snuffed out. The problems of alcoholism and drugs came about in the reservations, a product of despair.
The treatment of Indians was to shape American colonial policy in the Philippines. Early bureaucrats like David Barrows, an anthropologist whose PhD was in (American) Indian Studies, drew from the experiences in the US with schools for American Indians, to craft his policies as the head of the Department of Public Instruction in the Philippines.
Now is the time to question why we still teach Philippine history as beginning with Magellan, with teachers still giving quizzes that ask: “When did Magellan discover the Philippines?”
That so-called discovery continues to mark us, haunting us as we try to regain our history. Next year is the quincentennial of…
Well, the Catholic Church calls it the 500th anniversary of the Christianization of the Philippines. It has moved the celebrations to 2022, recognizing that the continuing pandemic might make it difficult to hold mass activities… and to invite the Pope over.
A more secular approach comes with the government’s Quincentennial Committee, with a focus on the Victory on Mactan. It’s a good start, and I hope it does not deify Lapu-Lapu alone and instead look at the full story, including rivalries between Lapu-Lapu and other local chiefs, but culminating in a daring and successful effort to stop Magellan and his expedition. Our history books are not explicit enough in stating that fact, and the 50-year hiatus that followed before another Spanish expedition, under Legaspi, returned to the Philippines.
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