UF study finds deficiencies in Columbus picture books used in schools

Published: October 5 2009

Category:Natural History, Race, Research

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The story of Christopher Columbus and the people he encountered when he arrived in the Caribbean has yet to be truthfully conveyed in books used by elementary school students, a new study finds.

Long before Columbus Day arrives Oct. 12, an overwhelming majority of books used by children in libraries and classrooms have presented outdated information and outright distortions about the explorer’s expeditions, said UF researcher Donna Sabis-Burns. She did the study for her doctoral dissertation in the in .

“Picture books are usually the first time children are exposed to the story of Columbus, so they need to be truthful,” she said. “Unfortunately, these books are telling our children a history that is filled with omissions and misrepresentations.”

Referring to the native people as savages when Columbus kidnapped hundreds into slavery and his shipmates raped local women are among the most glaring examples of falsehoods, said Sabis-Burns, who is now a team leader with the School Support and Technology Program in Washington, D.C.

Within the sample, most of the books are widely outdated at more than 10 years old, Sabis-Burns said. Less than 2 percent of the volumes contain more readily available information that became increasingly visible in 1992 as scholars released new findings to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first expedition to the New World, she said.

The week after Columbus Day in 2008, Sabis-Burns sent an online survey to school districts, teachers and national education listservs in 39 states about which reading materials they used on the explorer. She received responses from 189 teachers and 89 librarians, who provided a list of 182 books, which she analyzed for content.

Six out of 10 books failed to identify the native Taino people whom Columbus encountered by their tribal affiliation, calling them simply “Indians” or “natives” and even “gentle heathens” or “naked, red-skinned savages,” Sabis-Burns said.

“Without these people, Columbus never would have survived,” she said. “Had it not been for the Tainos, his voyages would not have been successful.”

The Tainos showered Columbus with much-needed food and showed him how to navigate the Caribbean islands, Sabis-Burns said.

Many of the books claim that the Tainos became extinct, even though about 600 descendants survive in small pockets of Cuba’s Guantanamo Mountains, she said.

While book publishers are beginning to release books for older children with more details about the Tainos, the practice has not extended to the picture book genre shared in today’s classrooms within the survey sample, she said.

Seventy-seven percent of picture books analyzed in the study use either oversimplified descriptions or primitive depictions of the native people, Sabis-Burns said. Less than half describe Taino trading items, traditional dress, agricultural practices or other aspects of their culture, many of which were never documented as belonging to the Taino, she said.

“It is not my intent to load picture books with men raping women or murdering them in the illustrations,” she said. “My point is that the books don’t tell what happened to the Taino at the hands of the Spanish.

“On his first voyage Columbus kidnapped several Tainos and shipped them back to Spain to be sold into slavery because he was afraid he would not have enough riches to compensate Spanish royalty for financing his trip,” she said.

On his next trip, Columbus seized hundreds more Tainos as slaves, many of whom died and were tossed overboard before his ships reached Spain, she said.

The Tainos killing of 39 men left behind after Columbus’ ship crashed into a reef on the island of Hispaniola was not unprovoked as presented in some of the sample picture books, Sabis-Burns said. Before Columbus returned a year later to the La Navidad settlement to find his men gone, the Europeans forced the Taino to work the fields and raped women, she said.

Sabis-Burns said the two most widely used books were written in 1980 and 1992, despite the publication of at least 150 picture books on Columbus since 1992.

“Dr. Sabis-Burns has brought this country’s deep resistance to correcting the story of Columbus taught to our children to the surface with her research,” said Nancy Rankie Shelton, an education professor at the . “Year after year, schools across our nation celebrate Columbus Day with the youngest of our citizens, never once thinking about or teaching the destruction he caused the Taino people.”


Cathy Keen, ckeen@ufl.edu, 352-392-0186
Donna Sabis-Burns, DrSabisBurns@yahoo.com, 202-260-1425

Category:Natural History, Race, Research