500th Anniversary Fosters Review of Columbus's Role
Rather than focusing on the man himself, museums and symposia nationwide are looking at the 1492 voyage to assess the cultural exchanges that came from the trip
QUINCENTENARY is a tongue twister in English or Spanish, but it is the password for the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's - let's use an unloaded word reaching" the New World. It is not a "celebration" of Columbus "discovering" America; it is officially a "commemoration" of Columbus "encountering" America.
At least that's what the Smithsonian Institution has charted for its voyage through the next two years of Quincentenary salutes.
"We are not really focusing on Columbus the man or the event itself, but on the implications and ramifications of the encounter" says Alicia M. Gonzalez, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Office of Quincentenary Programs.
By "encounter" does she mean the discovery of America? "Well, we're not even using the words 'discovery of America, she says, because the Indians were here. So discovery "is really a one-sided perspective, and it was a question of who's discovering whom."
Then are we talking about an encounter with the Quincentenary? "No, no, the encounter between cultures," she says, "and even more important is the impact of the last 500 years. We're really looking at it from the perspective of cultural diversity and its implications, who we are at this point, what does it mean for all of us." The Columbus telescope is being turned around so that we are looking at his arrival through the eyes of native Americans.
I ask Ms. Gonzalez whether it's safe to say this commemoration is taking a revisionist approach. "No.... You revise something if it's been written, but in many cases it hasn't been written," she explains. "I don't think a lot of the history of many of these people [indigenous Americans] has even been acknowledged." Even 50 to 100 years ago we had no knowledge of the incredible civilizations unearthed by archaeology in this hemisphere, Gonzalez says. These civilizations, whose aqueducts, metalurgy, techn o
logies, and mathematics existed before Columbus, produced important effects on European society.
She cites some of the exhibitions, symposia, and programs to be presented in 1991 before the cultural fireworks of the 1992 Quincentenary year begin. Among them: The annual "Festival of American Folklife," held during the last week in June and first week in July on the National Mall in Washington, will focus on Native people from all over the Americas - performers, musicians, artisans, and cultural specialists.
"Seeds of Change" will be held from this Oct. 12 to April 1, 1993, at the National Museum of Natural History. The exhibit spotlights five major ecological and biological exchanges between cultures including horses, potatoes, maize, sugar, and disease.
"Good as Gold: Foods the Americas Gave the World," to be held Oct. 18-20 at the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History, concentrates on everything from corn to chocolate.
"Race, Discourse, and the Origin of the Americas: A New World View of 1492" is a symposium to be held Oct. 31 through Nov. 1. Also scheduled for this year: "Images: Women in the Americas," at the Smithsonian International Center, to run Nov. 7-9.
The message from the Smithsonian is that the old concepts and language about Columbus's impact on America are changing. Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC Adams wrote in this spring's first edition of the Quincentenary publication: "Celebration ... is a somewhat loaded word. Today, let us agree most of us have something to celebrate. But what of the millions of Native Americans who were deprived of their lands, driven into forced labor, or felled by the onslaught of European diseases to which they lacked i
mmunity? Not surprisingly, some Native Americans gather annually to commemorate what they call a 'National Day of Mourning.' "
The little verse Alicia Gonzalez learned in a Los Angeles grammar school In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" is no longer the message of Columbus Day or year.
Dozens of programs involving more than 20 departments of the Smithsonian are scheduled in the next two years. There has been resistance on the part of the bureaucracy, Gonzalez says, which "has a lot to do with the fact that there has been very little media attention, there have been lots of shifts in the educational system in this country.... Every system that exists is being challenged, rethought ... at a pivotal time in our history. So this is a juncture between what we want to have happen in the 21s t
century, while we're still in the 20th century.
"An institution like this [the Smithsonian] can be said to be still in the 19th century, and we're still operating with l9th-century models.... And they just don't work. So the challenge is that everything is being scrutinized ... and I think that's a good challenge."