As a young schoolboy, I was taught that Christopher Columbus proved the world was round and discovered America.
Greek thinkers determined the spheric nature of our planet nearly two-thousand years before Columbus.
Columbus was also thousands of years late in discovering America, unless we discount millions of people living in the “New World” when he stumbled upon it.
Columbus may not have proven the world was round, but in Santa Maria he has turned the world upside down. And by the measure of his local popularity, Columbus’ many admirers disregard historical accounts of his brutal treatment of the indigenous peoples he met in the Americas. I refer here to Santa Maria’s use of an image of Columbus’ flagship as its city seal.
Consider that the California Legislature removed the statue of Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain (who sponsored his expeditions) from the Capitol Rotunda in July of 2020. I quote the joint statement by Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon in announcing its removal:
“Christopher Columbus is a deeply polarizing historical figure given the deadly impact his arrival in this hemisphere had on indigenous populations. The continued presence of the statue in California’s Capitol, where it has been since 1883, is out of place today.”
Given this action by our Legislature, one would think Santa Maria, having numerous residents of indigenous ethnicity, would be an unlikely place to use an image of Columbus’ expedition to represent itself. Yet, Santa Maria displays the image of his flagship on its official documents, buildings including City Hall and the Public Library, vehicles including transit buses, uniform patches of firefighters, badges of police officers, and even waste containers.
Santa Maria’s Columbus ship seal is especially prominent in murals on pillars of the overpasses of Highway 101. Thousands of motorists traversing the highway observe the murals every day; millions have seen them since they were placed on the overpasses in 2002.
This is not to say the city has forgotten its residents of indigenous ethnicity.
At a recent meeting, Santa Maria’s City Council proclaimed November as “American Indian Heritage Month.” It has done so for several years. The proclamation document displays the Columbus flagship image and includes these words by Santa Maria’s mayor: “I have hereunto set my hand and have caused the Seal of the City of Santa Maria to be affixed hereto ….”
From the perspective of indigenous peoples, a proclamation issued on their behalf — bearing a Columbus flagship emblem which signifies atrocities brought upon their ancestors — is an affront. Fortunately, but ironically, the City Council didn’t present its proclamation to an indigenous group or organization, but to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).
The Council’s proclamation with its Columbus flagship seal disrespects residents of indigenous ethnicity. It counters the factual narrative of indigenous peoples in history, and reinforces an uninformed perspective of a dominant culture.
A week prior to the proclamation by the City Council, a coalition of organizations and individuals concerned with racial justice submitted a letter to the Director of Caltrans requesting the removal of the Columbus ship murals from Highway 101. The tribal council of our local Chumash band joined 10 other organizations in cosigning the letter.
The City Council’s “American Indian Heritage Month” proclamation encourages “all residents and businesses to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.” There could be no more appropriate activity in this regard than for Santa Maria to recognize the inappropriateness of its seal, and replace it with one truly reflecting its peoples and heritage.