As a young schoolboy, I was taught that Christopher Columbus proved the world to be round and discovered America.
Greek thinkers determined the spherical nature of our planet almost two thousand years before Columbus.
Columbus was also thousands of years behind in discovering America, unless we take into account the millions of people living in the “New World” when he stumbled upon it.
Columbus may not have proven the world to be round, but in Santa Maria he turned the world upside down. And to the extent of his local popularity, many admirers of Columbus ignore historical accounts of his brutal treatment of the indigenous peoples he encountered in the Americas. I am referring here to Santa Maria’s use of an image of Columbus’ flagship as the city’s 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 2020. I am quoting the joint statement by Senate Speaker pro Tempore Toni Atkins and the President of the Assembly Anthony Rendon by announcing his deletion:
“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 the California Capitol, where it has stood since 1883, has no place today.
Given this action by our legislature, one would think that Santa Maria, having many residents of indigenous ethnicity, would be an unlikely place to use an image of Columbus’s expedition to represent himself. However, Santa Maria displays the image of its flagship on its official documents, buildings including the town hall and the public library, vehicles including public transport buses, firefighter uniforms, police badges and even waste containers.
The seal of the Columbus ship of Santa Maria is particularly visible in the murals on the pillars of the Highway 101 viaducts. Thousands of motorists crossing the highway observe the murals every day; millions have seen them since they were placed on the viaducts in 2002.
This does not mean that the city has forgotten its inhabitants of indigenous ethnic origin.
At a recent meeting, the Santa Maria City Council proclaimed November “Native American Heritage Month”. He has been doing this for several years. The proclamation document displays the flagship image of Christopher Columbus and includes these words from the Mayor of Santa Maria: “I have affixed my hand and I have affixed the seal of the city of Santa Maria…”.
From the perspective of indigenous peoples, a proclamation issued in their name – bearing a flagship emblem of Columbus signifying the atrocities committed against their ancestors – is an affront. Fortunately, but ironically, the city council did not present its proclamation to an indigenous group or organization, but to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).
The Council’s proclamation with its flagship Columbus seal disrespects residents of Aboriginal ethnicity. It contradicts the factual narrative of Indigenous peoples in history and reinforces an uninformed perspective of a dominant culture.
A week before the city council’s proclamation, a coalition of organizations and individuals concerned with racial justice submitted a letter to the director of Caltrans requesting the removal of the ship’s Columbus murals from Highway 101. The Tribal Council of Caltrans our local Chumash band joined 10 other organizations in co-signing the letter.
The city council’s proclamation of “American Indian Heritage Month” 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 that truly reflects its peoples and heritage.
Scott Fina is a resident of Santa Maria.