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Replicas of Columbus Ships Stir Protests

Great Lakes Today
Native American protester outside of a replica of Columbus ships.

Two replica Christopher Columbus ships are sailing across the Great Lakes this summer, offering visitors a chance to learn about the famous explorer's voyages. But some say the ships only tell half of a story. 

Aboard the Pinta replica in Oswego, N.Y., harbor, tour guide Collin Foster lectured a group of students last weekend about Columbus and his famous voyages. "It was 33 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean, everybody has to remember that,” he said.

The Nina replica was built in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage across the Atlantic. The Pinta came about a decade later.

Capt. Morgan Sanger says both vessels were always intended to be a tool to educate people.

"They can touch, they can feel and they can imagine what it was like for their forefathers be it on these ships or the Mayflower or whatever,” he said.

Teaching is the motivation for many of the crew's 14 members, all of whom are volunteers. Jeff Hicks says their mission is to inform people about Columbus and the explorers who followed.

"He did discover for it the old world, they knew nothing of this part of the world,” Hicks said. “We celebrate the age of discovery because without that we as Americans today and in this part of the world would not be here ."

But not all are as eager to celebrate that legacy.

That was clear in Oswego, a port on the eastern end of Lake Ontario. The replicas were surrounded by protestors in canoes and kayaks. On the pier, other protestors carried signs.

Kahionwinehshon , a Native American and member of the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, noted that the age of exploration brought with it mass murder, slavery and diseases for the original people of the Americas.

“To make a replica of the ships that did that to our own people and to even let it sail into these waters isn’t right,” Kahionwinehshon said. It’s a huge slap into the face.”  

Professor Philip Arnold, who teaches Native American and indigenous studies at Syracuse University, says those issues still resonate today and should not be ignored.

“It’s hard to get over that trauma,” he said. It’s as if we were to ask Jews to get over the Holocaust or something akin to that. I think a discussion would be good for everybody.”

In Oswego, that was happening. The Neighbors of Onondaga Nationwere able to open an informational booth at the entranceway to the ships. And local summer school principal Bob Nelson filled in the gaps for his students.

"Of course everybody is taught that 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue . There’s a little bit more to that,” he said. “So, that’s what we try to show them, just to get them thinking a little bit ."

Jake Edwards, a member of the Central New York Onondaga Nation, says the replica ships will present opportunities to have that conversation as they move through the Great Lakes.

"I would encourage all of the nations across the country to stand up and be heard, because we’re not gone,” Edwards said. “We’re not ancient history like they portray us in the history books in school ."

The replica ships, part of an educational foundation based in the British Virgin Islands, will continue along the Great Lakes this summer with stops in Ohio and Michigan. They will then head to the Mississippi River.

Click on this sentence for details of the tour's stops.

The Michigan stops include: 

August 18-22: Traverse City

August 25-29: Muskegon

August 31-Sept. 4: South Haven

Sept. 6-10: Michigan City, Indiana

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