Use Columbus Day to Confront Stereotypes


Monday ushers in Columbus Day, an event that irritates indigenous folks in North America.

Particularly vexing is the well-worn trope that Columbus “discovered” the continent.

Christopher Columbus offers a convenient target for our wrath but I can think of many other individuals who have caused grief among tribal people.

For example, I’ve written about the scientist Samuel Morton who classified people according to skull size, placing American Indians at the lowest rung of intelligence based on brain size.

Such stereotypes about Native intelligence pervaded scientific thought for decades and continues today.

But the most pervasive harm occurs at a more macro level.

Rarely does one individual—even Columbus or Morton—create misery for an entire population.

What is necessary for the harms to be etched in memory and practice are all the folks who continue to mount the stereotypes.

We are all keepers of the flame and it’s up to us to rip apart the myths when they appear.

This Columbus Day I pledge to remind others that a thriving and intelligent indigenous population called North America home for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the conquerors.

And we are still here.

Image from


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, ethics, Indian, Native Science, science, science communication, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

55 Responses to Use Columbus Day to Confront Stereotypes

  1. jumeirajames says:

    Yep – America is a young nation but the continent is the same age as the rest of the world, it didn’t pop up when a European sailed into view.


  2. GP says:

    Reblogged this on misentopop.


  3. edgeledge says:

    A similar mentality exists in Australia and is mentioned in passing on Australia day.


  4. James T. Laffrey says:

    You are a professor? And yet you are so shallow in regard to the extensive research that has long been done on brain size and brain weight, especially as it involves the folding of brain tissue which enables substantial increases in the most important areas of the brain for reasoning, creativity, and morality.

    Naturally, the races –. (Note: People who can’t use the word “race” properly, you have no business weighing in on this discussion. Our species is human, and every sub-species is a race.)

    Naturally, the races who don’t measure up so well always protest that the research is some kind of “evil,” such as “racist!” What the complainers cannot do is offer valid research results to prove their rantings. Meanwhile, if they just open their eyes, they can see which kinds of people INVENT and BUILD modern civilizations with machinery of all kinds, strong structures of all kinds, and social systems for Justice, etc. And look a little further and see who all of that has simply been GIVEN TO, and look at what those kinds of people did (and do) to what is given to them by the INVENTIVE race.

    And then, look at which kind of people has monopolized ownership of the media and banking, and look at what that kind of people does through their newspapers and “entertainment” to tear down the INVENTIVE, MORAL race.

    I’ve said too much, eh?

    Well, it’s the truth, though not stated very politely, I suppose.

    My name is James T. Laffrey, and I stand by what I say. The truth, however shocking, is a necessity for progress. I would like to link you to my website (, but wordpress just put a permanent block on it. Surely that news will make the ignorant joyful.


    • Identitas says:

      Mr. Laffrey, I will copy-paste a comment I have already posted in this comment section because I find it really compatible with what you just said, here is what I said earlier (with some extra words I just added) :

      Stereotypes? Morton? Morton’s study truly had a couple of mistakes here and there, but the mistakes were spread randomly in all races. He didn’t have a “bias” that made him distort some numbers to make some races look superior to others. In fact, his study was very objective. Why don’t you just accept the fact that different races have different physical characteristics? In fact, the real charlatan and fraud is Stephen Jay Gould (and Franz Boas to name another pseudo-scientific intellectual with a political agenda) who tried to discredit Morton’s study :


  5. Jean says:

    It’s tough to use this day to confront stereotypes about Columbus, because it’s a celebratory day, named after him. Is there any particulary day celebrated specifically for an aboriginal person or type of traditional event? This might be a better approach.

    Great idea!


  6. ashanam says:

    I think the message of Christopher Columbus is really that interesting things sometimes happen if you get lost. Everything else associated with him is about larger societal forces.

    What I think is perhaps revealing (and the Indians I’ve spoken to about it find just strange) is that he is still talked about as an explorer and a triumphant conqueror, and not as someone who got lost. (And when I say Indians, I do mean Indians–not Native peoples.)


  7. Thank you for writing this, more people need to be aware of this. It’s crazy how racism towards Native Americans still exist and people don’t even realize that it is racism.


  8. Yes!! I hate the stereotypes. And fight them whenever I can.


  9. segmation says:

    Happy Columbus Day to all. Thanks for sharing!


  10. TJ Johnston says:

    There are so many Samuel Norton-wannabes out there, using psuedo-science to explain “why (fill in ETHNIC GROUP) can’t (fill in ACTIVITY).”


  11. Finally, someone who can see the truth behind the fake history.


  12. Identitas says:

    Stereotypes? Morton? Morton’s study truly had a couple of mistakes here and there, but the mistakes were spread randomly in all races. He didn’t have a “bias” that made him distort some numbers to make some races look superior to others. In fact, his study was very objective. Why don’t you just accept the fact that different races have different physical characteristics? In fact, the real charlatan and fraud is Stephen Jay Gould who tried to discredit Morton’s study :


  13. Chewy says:

    Yea it’s interesting that we celebrate a man who caused so much suffering both in North America but also the islands in the Atlantic. You mentioned sizing the skulls to judge their intelligence. . . And I recently read a book about the beginnings of American imperialism or “expansionism” as we put it. I didn’t realize that just around 100 years ago that we saw the Anglo-Saxon race as supreme and all others (even other white races) were considered to be lesser and weak. What a wild thought. Anyways, during the Spanish-American War there were scientists who measured the skull size of the Cuban rebels to judge their potential I intelligence.


  14. Well put! And I agree. By any measure, Europe’s age of expansion created many deep and lasting injustices around the globe, something we rightly reject today. Understanding how that happened is a good step towards making sure we do not repeat the mistake in future.

    But it seems to me that we have to be careful how we do that – lest we simply perpetuate those old injustices in a different way. I am thinking of what has been happening where I live in New Zealand. There was a good deal of historical mythology here of the ‘Columbus discovers America’ style, relating to New Zealand’s past and in particular to the human settlement of these islands, including the process of British colonialism. Much of this mythology emerged in the 1890-1900 period as a product of the way that the colonists were re-framing their own view of themselves. Various self-justifying myths and tropes emerged that were not challenged until the 1980s-1990s and beyond.

    Unfortunately, some who were taking the new post-colonial approach allowed the old to define the sole parameters of the debate. A lot of what followed spoke more of a collision between contemporary pop-ideals, intellectualised technique, and the demands of narrow social groups, than it did of any abstract and robust analysis. The fundamental thrust – to refute old ideas that created deep wrongs – was well intentioned. But the way it was expressed, intellectualised, given contemporary social content and then used as a device to assert personal status within pretentious and viciously territorial academic-social groups was counter-productive. Some of the arguments that emerged were intellectualised fantasy – flat out absurdities that were well divorced from the documented historical reality, trivial to refute. They spoke more of the realities of the people from whom they came.

    As far as I could tell, such polemic did nothing for the credibility of the necessary steps away from old colonial thinking – indeed, it risked a populist backlash, setting back the effort to dislodge old ideas and to avoid past mistakes. A lot of the attitude of these historical in-crowds, to me, reflected the self-same dark side of the human condition that they were trying to condemn – the intolerance, the arrogant assertion of narrowly defined world view, and the self-righteous sanctimony that created the old colonial mind set in the first place, with all the injustices and wrongs that followed.

    Is there a way ahead? Sure. To me, abstraction, lateral thought, reason – and reasonableness – an understanding that analysis and advocacy are two quite different things – and a broad understanding of the human condition – to me, are all useful tools for us to make proper progress towards a better understanding of the realities.


    • I agree with the polemics: perhaps part of reading history entails a polemic of sorts–the ways in which we interpret (reinterpret?) information. I look forward to an opportunity to travel to New Zealand and take in the cultures. Thank you for your note. ~ C


  15. I live in the Southwest California desert where Indian culture is HUGE. I love learning about the culture as I was an Educational Docent for the Living desert Zoo here.


  16. mirrormon says:

    Great thought….Yes we need to crack these myths now , or we are really stupid… its exactly like these days we have stereotyped a particular religion, like muslims as terrorists… the world has a huge proportion of them all around, but what a misery has been caused to all due to a label thats been pasted on account of one person’s one time act, killing the sense of individuality for an entire mass.
    I am glad you wrote abt such an atrocity…


    • Identitas says:

      It’s funny that people like you who are obviously leftist or liberal or progressist, anyways, always like to point out how bad it is to generalize when something portrays non-western populations negatively. Yet, as soon as some western nation wants to defend its ethnic interest, suddenly Hitler becomes the example that serves to discredit nationalism. Just because one guy did it all wrong, doesn’t mean you can generalize to the entire population…right?


      • S.C. says:

        Well, yeah, it’s not fair to say Germans were evil because of Hitler; in fact most of them didn’t even support him up until you’d probably get imprisoned or killed for not supporting him. But I don’t see anywhere on this page where anyone is making that argument.


  17. I’ll be following. I like reading pieces like this with my children instead of trying to fumble around the topic on my own.


  18. Hitler did a very good job at causing misery for many people, and he was just one man.


    • Identitas says:

      Just like Freud, Franz Boas and a couple of people from the Frankfurt School who basically totally manipulated the social sciences in the 20th century by trying to eradicate racial studies and portray white ethnic cohesion as being “pathological”. Your comment reflects the success of their brainwashing pseudo-theories. Truth is, if europeans didn’t come to America, natives would be in the same state of technological and philosophical evolution.


  19. Reblogged this on peachumbrella and commented:
    So ridiculously true. I live in an area of the country where racism isn’t take seriously and sometimes encouraged. It astounds me how close-minded individuals can be.


  20. I guess it would be wrong of me to say that I discovered this blog because it had already been here before.


  21. Ras Writa says:

    Christopher Columbus can’t possibly be used to “confront stereotypes” as the coming of Columbus to the “New World” resulted in global genocide in Africa, North/South America and festered and burst into disastrously racist ideals and socially engineered destruction for Native Indian and African people.


  22. S.C. says:

    Interesting post. Yeah, Columbus has been a popular figure to dump on, for obvious reasons, but if it hadn’t been him it definitely would have been someone else. It’s just easier to blame him, or Ferdinand and Isabella, than to admit that these sorts of feelings still exist in the modern world and that we all need to work hard to get around them.


    • mudlips says:

      SC- Yes, there were others. As with Colombus, there’s a dichotomy when it comes to how they are all viewed. While some of those others are still celebrated in Spain and Portugal, if you read a little deeper in the history books, you’ll see that they too had a horrific impact on the indigenous people (Francisco Pizarro for example). So, they aren’t so popular in some parts of the New World.

      While I agree that we need to admit this sort of thing exists in the modern world, I also think it is important to have a complete picture of what really happened in the past or we are doomed to keep making the same mistakes. So, I believe we DO need to dump on the colonial empires (and their figure heads) that drove these massacres, be honest about what really happened, and stop glorifying people that are responsible for these atrocities.


  23. Don says:

    Very interesting Blog. I grew up in Michigan where we also have Indian Reservations and a large population of indiginous Americans. You may find it interesting that the Boy Scouts of America have been celebrating the American Indian for many, many years. A number of acolades bestoded onto members are based upon the American Indian tradition. I would say that 99% of the membership will stand up for the proud heritage of the American Indian.
    We also have to remember that without Columbus “discovering” America, milions of people who call themselves Americans wouldn’t be here today! I will neither apologize for nor endorse the distant past of this great nation.We can simply start with today and move forward.


  24. Just returned from a trip to Quebec and loved the respectful emphasis in museums on Canada’s “First Nations.”


    • You visited the museum of civilisations in Quebec city? They are rebuilding the whole exhibit with the help of all 11 indigenous nations present in the province. I can’t wait to see the result! There are problems in Quebec and Canada too, though. We don’t celebrate Columbus day and we have national days of reconciliation and for indigenous peoples, but our governement still doesn’t show real willingness to allow First Nations to self-determine. Hope you enjoyed your trip!


  25. Jeremy White says:

    Though I don’t necessarily agree with all of your presuppositions, I do appreciate your point. Too often, irrespective of (and often in contradiction to) our worldview, we allow ourselves to fall into a “manifest destiny”-sort of mindset regarding our nation. We may very well be the greatest nation that has ever existed, but that in no way means that the course we charted was necessarily pure. Good things can come from bad places.


  26. mango1531 says:

    just coming across your blog today from the freshly pressed section.. and I am really enjoying your posts!


  27. umanbn says:

    Great post, very thought provoking and generally I agree. I hate racism in all it forms or absolutism of any kind or the people in the UK or U.S. who complain and bitch about immigrants etc. The UK is a nation of immigrants. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants. What means indigenous? Who is REALLY native to anywhere? The human race has always been one big nation on the move, driven by each other or by the forces of nature……?


  28. I love your blog and I would really like you to feature on my blog All you have to do is think of 5 things and I will feature them and provide a link back to your blog. Check it out and see what you think. If you feel you can contribute then please email your suggestions to David at Many Thanks. David


  29. barbdsykes says:

    Very thoughtful post. Interesting enough, most schools do not have it off; and if your child is fortunate – the truth is told about Columbus Day. However, the post office and the banks are closed – still keeping it as a Federal holiday.


  30. Ben Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on College Composition and Research Tips and commented:
    Columbus Day should be a day of teaching and learning. Depending upon the class I am teaching, I ask my students to read an essay by Suzan Shown Harjo. We then discuss stereotypes and the misconceptions associated with the day. I’ll definitely be adding this blog to the reading list for my students.

    Harjo link:'t%20be%20celebrating%20columbus%20day.html


  31. What, then, should we make of the “Late Pleistocene sea-going people” who may have co-existed with the early migrants from Siberia and eastern Asia? Should the sea-going upstarts be upset that the Siberians dominated the conversation about early Americans for so long?

    Of course not.

    As an American of Scandinavian origin, I grew up with the story of Christopher Columbus. When I was eight, I couldn’t imagine that Solutreans from “Northern Europe” may have crossed the North Atlantic long before monarchs from “Southern Europe” funded Christopher’s voyage. Should I be upset about the “lie” of Columbus?

    Of course not.

    It is undoubtedly true that “a thriving and intelligent … population called North America home for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the conquerors.” As for “indigenous” … well, let’s just say that you might be more racist than you realize.

    And why are you so angry about Columbus? Shouldn’t you be equally angry at the Solutreans, who probably “conquered” North America long before giving birth to the Clovis culture? (Damn, we just can’t get rid of those pesky “conquerors” can we?) And isn’t the whole argument about the “first” Americans just absurd anyway?

    Your post is so politically-correct that I can’t expect you to change your mind about the “stereotypes” you so abhor. But if you opened your mind just a little bit more, you might see your own stereotypes peering into the light…


  32. Pingback: Columbus Day? True Legacy: Cruelty and Slavery « lara harlow-hentz

  33. camc1105 says:

    Hell yeah! love the post!


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  37. Reblogged this on healingthymeproducts and commented:
    God bless the American Indians! Home is where the heart is, and my heart is with the Blackfoot Indian tribes…


  38. Pingback: FWD: Columbus Didn’t Stop For Directions | Stuff My Mom Forwards

  39. bharatwrites says:

    I think the most lasting cure for stereotyping is individualism. Every time we identify a group of people by a common characteristic, we risk pigeonholing them. If we must group people, let’s do so based on what they do and how they behave. If you must talk about intelligence, group people based on smart, average, and stupid—regardless of their race or ethnicity.
    In any case, sheer intelligence based on IQ is such a weak predictor of success that it’s almost not worth debating who’s smarter than whom. Nice post. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!


  40. Liked your post! You might enjoy reading the Beyond Buckskin blog. Do you know it?

    I can’t believe some of the comments leff here: some people still think humanity is divided into races!!! They should read the AAA statement on race and give it serious consideration. But I guess if they think some humans are superior to others, they don’t know how to recognize real science. More importantly, even if human races existed, it wouldn’t justify such condensending attitutes.


  41. So to recap, the vikings discovered America. They were camping off the coast of America, and had every reason to settle America for about 500 years. Despite being the biggest badasses in European history, one tangle with the natives was enough to convince the vikings that settling America wasn’t worth the trouble. If you think the pilgrims would have fared any better than the vikings against an East Coast chock-full of Native Americans, you either don’t know what a viking is or you’re placing entirely too much stock in the strategic importance of having belt buckles on your shoes.


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