Rethinking Columbus: Book-Banning in Tucson

Suzan Shown Harjo

I learned about the banning of Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years from Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo), who blogs at American Indians in Children’s Literature. She wrote on January 15 that my interview in the book “is no longer available in Tucson high schools due to the shut down of Mexican [American] Studies courses. Rethinking Columbus was boxed up and taken out of the classroom.”

Co-editor Bill Bigelow posted on Rethinking Schools Blog that the publisher “learned today that for the first time in its more-than-20-year history, our book Rethinking Columbus was banned by a school district.… What’s to fear? Rethinking Columbus offers teaching strategies and readings that teachers can use to help students consider perspectives that are too often silenced in the traditional curriculum.”

But, wait! Could it be that the book wasn’t banned? That’s what Tucson Unified School District claimed in a January 17 release: “TUSD has not banned any books as has been widely and incorrectly reported.”

Whew! So, no books are banned? Not exactly, as TUSD explained: “Seven books that were used as supporting materials for curriculum in Mexican American Studies classes have been moved to the district storage facility because the classes have been suspended as per the ruling by Arizona Superintendent for Public Instruction John Huppenthal that the classes were in violation of state law ARS 15-112.”

That law prohibits a school district or charter school in Arizona from including courses or classes that: “(1) Promote overthrowing the U.S. government; (2) Promote resentment towards a race or class of people; (3) Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic race; and (4) Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

Without proving that MAS did any of those four things, Huppenthal ordered TUSD to bring MAS into compliance, warning, “Failure to do so shall result in the withholding of 10 percent (or $14 million) of state funds.” An administrative law judge upheld his ruling on December 27, 2011, and TUSD jettisoned MAS and books.

TUSD says these seven books are “boxed and stored”: Critical Race Theory, 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, Message to AZTLAN, Chicano!, The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Rethinking Columbus.

Dozens of other books listed in an audit are widely assumed to be banned. Not so, says TUSD: “Teachers may continue to use materials in their classrooms as appropriate for the course curriculum. The Tempest and other books approved for curriculum are still viable options for instructors.” The problem is that pesky word “approved.” Huppenthal found that the approving authority, TUSD’s board, hasn’t approved books: “No evidence was found to support [that the board] has reviewed any of the texts or supplemental materials used in many of the [MAS] courses.”

Huppenthal maintains that The Tempest (yes, as in Shakespeare’s) may be used, but teachers and materials can’t say that the “discovered” and enslaved Natives on the bard’s island are oppressed or that the foreign slavers are oppressors. Huppenthal is sensitive about words related to oppressor, which he oddly claims comes from The Communist Manifesto (oppressor is Middle English, deriving from Old French and Latin; in Karl Marx’s German, it’s unterdrucker).

Because words are important, let’s just call all the stored books banned, until they’re back in the classroom and the teachers are free to use them again.

The banned book I know most about is Rethinking Columbus. First published in 1991, much of its content had been developed or shaped by The 1992 Alliance, which began in 1990 to promote Native voices for 1992, the Year of Indigenous Peoples and the Columbus Quincentenary. I was national coordinator of the Alliance and the historic gathering at Taos Pueblo, Our Visions: The Next 500 Years.

The introduction to the 1998 banned version of Rethinking Columbus begins with my quote: “We have no reason to celebrate an invasion that caused the demise of so many of our people and is still causing destruction today.” Part of my interview in the book came from my 1991 column in Newsweek, “I Won’t Be Celebrating Columbus Day”—I don’t know if that’s now banned in Arizona.

I am honored to stand with the MAS teachers, students and writers. If Rethinking Columbus were not banned, I would have wanted to do what playwright/poet Bertolt Brecht’s banished writer did in “The burning of the books,” upon learning his books were not on the bonfire: “Burn me! he wrote with a flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books?/?Always reported the truth? And here you are?/?Treating me like a liar! I command you?/?Burn me!”

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee, is an award-winning columnist, poet, writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native peoples to protect sacred places and recover more than 1 million acres of land. President of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., she is a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and past news director of the American Indian Press Association.

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petetefertillerbassett's picture
Columbus doesn't deserve his own Holiday, he never discovered American, it was already occupied by the Natives who had lived in this land for generations...he took advantage of the people he found living here, he enslaved them, force the christian religion upon them, and did a lot worst by order of the crown of Spain...."Rethinking Columbus" should be a teaching guide so that our youth can learn the truth about Columbus and the type of person he really was....
globe's picture
Rethinking Columbus was especially important for educators in helping them to create lesson plans to counter the state-sponsored celebrations of Columbus' legacy. Thanks Ms. Harjo for contributing so much to that cultural movement, an effort which formally began in 1988 when the International Indian Treaty Council published and distributed an International Call to Indian Country to resist the impending 1992 celebrations scheduled four years later. The IITC co-coordinated its efforts with the South American Indian Information Center (SAIIC). The IITC had already begun efforts at the United Nations to have 1992 proclaimed International Year for the World's Indigenous Peoples, an effort which was blocked by Spain so the year 1993 was chosen instead. The 1992 Alliance was one of many networks throughout the Americas and the world that successfully rose up in the early 1990s to challenge the conventions of the time which regarded Columbus as a hero of the world. Perhaps Rethinking Columbus can be revised and republished to focus on the issues we face in Year 520.
duwaynesmith's picture
This is a sensitive issue of censorship in our public schools, and has been brewing in Arizona for some time. Having lived in Tucson recently, I am aware of the reactionary, right-wing political climate of the state. The implications of ARS-15-112 go well beyond Chicano and Raza studies. Professors Roberto Rodriquez and Patrisia Gonzales of the Mexican American Studies program, University of Arizona, have been fighting against this legislation. Roberto Rodriquez has been reminding us that there has long been a connection between the Indigenous peoples of Mexico and Native peoples of the United States, and his teaching and writing reflects this by pointing out that the "people of corn" didn't recognize any border before Columbus. I would hope that teachers and students in Native American and American Indian studies programs would support the fight against this legislation as a sign of solidarity, and in support of all "people of corn". The next target for censorship could be books that tell the story of the Navajo Long Walk and the oppression of the Navajo people during the US Civil War.
idiotwind's picture
That's a bad law and of itslef promotes resentment and hatred towards a race or class of people. Sensible law makers should throw that law out. Half the anthropology books used in my university could meet that criteria, and who, by the way, actually sits down and reads the entire library to find out which books meet all that criteria, or even any of it? Who's philosphy of what constitutes racism and hatred do they use? Looks like the racist Republican one to me. From the way Arizona's current governor conducts herself in public, I can understand how such a law got passed...she's not all there and that should give Arizonians - give all Americans - pause to consider that it might be a good idea to kick her to the curb.
tmsyr11's picture
It is ashame that personalities and opinions are based on the color of skin - namely the assumption of having brown automatically catagorizes you (me) as a 'supporter' of this (what I call) racial agitation (namely on the part of the La Raza movement). The attitudes and 'dis-respect' by immigration (legal or illegal) coupled with the so-called 'rights' of hispanics (namely Mexican) should be a total cause for alarm to the rest of the country. It is unfortunate legitimate American Indians (some) of the United States are being led and fed this ideology and movement of La Raza. If there is any indication of how much 'indigenous rights' are supported in Central America - all one has to do is go back to the 1980s and witness the autrocities commited by those established Latino/Hispanio Govts built around the movement of Socialism/Communism. I am an American Indian in this country and what American Indians lack in the United States is partially in due part to the illegal migration across the southern border into the US. I support the AZ Governor and the AZ Government in their efforts to combat this wave of extremism whereas no one in the US Govt has the nerve nor the common sense to do something than to ignore the problem and further OUTSOURCE the institutions to foreign interests for the sake of 'votes' to stay in power. In 10 years, the Hispanic votes in this Southwest United States will sway national/state/local opinion. How will the established American Indian relationships, from the early 1800 treaties to early 1900 federal laws be 'recognized' and supported by Hispanic votes and interests. What will become of the Colorado River Water Rights and Compact Agreements established in the 1900s by the United States when Phoenix valley/Tucson explodes and populations doubles when hispanics (newly minted US citizens of Mexico descent with Allegenice to Central Americas) begin to consume the water? I think of my boys and worry of the regression this country is taking particularly when 'THEY" support extreme movements such as what exists in the TUSD system. Do you realize, white students have been intidimidated and called racial names - but of course we never hear of this being reported in the TV news? Be careful in what some of you support. This is not a fight for American Indians with common sense should participate in.
tmsyr11's picture
AZ house bill 2281: >>>>>>>>>>> E. THIS SECTION SHALL NOT BE CONSTRUED TO RESTRICT OR PROHIBIT: 1. COURSES OR CLASSES FOR NATIVE AMERICAN PUPILS THAT ARE REQUIRED TO COMPLY WITH FEDERAL LAW. I believe that AZ House bill 2281 is Arizona law and that TUSD broke Arizona STate Law, “Given the evidence that I have reviewed as of today, I support former Superintendent Tom Horne’s decision that a violation of one or more provisions of A.R.S. § 15-112 (the statute created by passage of HB 2281) has occurred by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). Sec of AZ Education John Huppenthal. Even Arizona State law distinguishes the difference between the rubbish being preached in AZ taxpayer funded schools and those that remain legitimate as a right of US Federal Law.
duwaynesmith's picture
Do we allow Arizona State legislators to make decisions about what is or is not "rubbish" and what can and cannot be taught regarding the cultural background of a specific group of people in the state. Governments have banned books before, frequently as a first step in attacking other civil liberties. Will it be freedom of religion next? Can the Sun Dance be performed? Can peyote be used as a sacramental part of the Native American Church, should sacred sites be protected?
duwaynesmith's picture
It is very bizarre for you to think that Hispanic voters will be a future threat to American Indian sovereignty. Very bizarre.