Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
Yecke takes a drubbing over Columbus comments
Norman Draper, Star Tribune
Published November 11, 2003
American Indian activists and educators slammed Minnesota Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke on Monday for her take on one of American history's most controversial characters — Christopher Columbus.
It's the latest development in the hullabaloo over the state's proposed new social studies requirements. And it's added testimony to how sensitive people are about how their ancestors are portrayed in the history books and classrooms.
At issue were social studies-related remarks Yecke made during a radio interview last week during which she said Columbus was not guilty of committing genocide on the Indian tribes he came in contact with, and that such a concept was an inappropriate one to teach kindergartners. She said that Columbus' men were responsible, at least indirectly and down through the ages, for tens of millions of deaths due to diseases such as smallpox, but she added, "I don't characterize that as genocide."
"That was not a deliberate decision to go and destroy native peoples," she said. "It was a tragedy. It was a tragedy beyond belief. But to say that now we have to teach that to kindergartners I think is inappropriate."
A debate over such an issue would be more appropriate for a middle-school or high-school class, Yecke said. The interview took place on Minnesota Public Radio last Tuesday.
The Indian activists who held a news conference in front of the Department of Education's Roseville headquarters Monday said Yecke owed them an apology, and called for the state Senate to fire her during next year's legislative session by withholding her confirmation as commissioner.
"We've got to educate this lady," said activist Clyde Bellecourt. "She is totally scholastically retarded. If we allow the social studies standards to go through the way they're written, we're going to go back to the Dark Ages."
Chris Mato Nunpa, associate professor of Indigenous Nations and Dakota Studies at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, cited a litany of horrors perpetrated on Indians, including the use of armored dogs by Columbus' men to tear Indians apart, the cutting off of hands of Indians who couldn't meet their gold quotas, and the use of Indians by Columbus' men for sword practice, and said that the Indian population by 1900 had been whittled down to a fraction of what it was at the time of Columbus' first landing on an island in the Bahamas.
"What happened?" Mato Nunpa said. "Genocide happened. Western Europeans and Euro-Americans were extremely efficient killers of indigenous peoples. It is shameful that a person such as Ms. Yecke is so ignorant and yet is in such a powerful and influential position."
Yecke was out of town Monday and could not be reached for comment.
"I think we heard some good input for the social studies committee on how we deal with and portray Native American history," said Bill Walsh, a spokesman for Yecke. "I don't think anyone mischaracterized what she said. But the question is whether it was genocide or not. I think that's the main rub. The bigger issue is where it starts; at what age can [students] deal with that?"
It probably was only a matter of time before Columbus got dragged into the social studies debate. He is a lightning rod for many modern historians. His reputation as the discoverer of the New World has been taking a major-league drubbing for years, and it got mauled during the 1992 quincentenary of his landing. In recent years, historians have been just as likely to view Columbus as one of a number of discoverers of America, an invader and murderer, and a crass exploiter of both the New World's people and resources.
A second draft of the new social studies standards is due back in the commissioner's office by mid-December after weeks of public meetings around the state and work by a citizens committee. It is slated to go to the Legislature for action in February. A set of science standards for Minnesota students also is in the works.
Norman Draper is at
See Was Disease the "Big Killer"? for more on why the disease-related deaths of Indians qualifies as genocide.
This ain't no party: a Columbus Day rant
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