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Replica Columbus ships draw thousands of people -- and a few protestors -- to Oswego Harbor

Two replica Christopher Columbus ships sailed into the Oswego harbor this weekend offering visitors a chance to learn about the famous explorer's voyages, but some say the ships only tell half of the story.

The Nina ship was built in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' 1492 voyage across the Atlantic. But Captain Morgan Sanger says both vessels were always intended to be a tool to educate people.

Credit Payne Horning / WRVO News
The replica Pinta ship hosted thousands of visitors during its trip to Oswego.

"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 to come across the ocean and being that desperate to get out of the old world and find some - a new world and the freedom that the New World had," Sanger said. 

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

"He did discover for it [the Americas] 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."

Not all are as eager to celebrate that legacy, however, particularly the claim that Columbus discovered land that was already inhabited. Kahionwinehshon, a Native American and member of the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), noted that the age of exploration brought with it mass murder, slavery and diseases for the original people of the Americas.

"Everything you guys are living on is built on genocide, assimilation and rape," Kahionwinehshon said. "To make a replica of the ships that did that to our own people and to even let it sail again into these waters isn’t right. It’s a huge slap into the face."

As the ships arrived in Brewerton on Friday, protesters hung a sign over the Route 11 bridge that said "Columbus didn't discover anything. Thousands of Native Americans were already here."

And on Saturday, protestors surrounded the Nina and Pinta in canoes in the Oswego Harbor. Renee Roman Ose, a descendant of the Oklahoma Cheyenne, said they were there to teach.

Credit Payne Horning / WRVO News
Several people protested the replica Christopher Columbus ships in the Oswego Harbor Saturday, playing music and chanting.

"It’s important to educate one another on the true history of our country, not just what is expedient or pretty," Roman Ose said. "Manifest destiny was the cry, but it also led to our genocide. We were nearly exterminated and many tribes were exterminated, and people need to know that the sacrifices made by our people need to be appreciated by the people who came after."

Sanger said he welcomes the "healthy discussion." But he said that's not necessarily what his organization is trying to do.  

"We celebrate the ships. The Nina in our minds is the space shuttle of the 15th century," Sanger said. "We celebrate navigation, we celebrate the types of vessels that could engage and start trading between the New and the Old Worlds. That’s really what we’re celebrating. The human aspects of it are completely different, but we understand it."

Director of the H. Lee White Maritime Museum Mercedes Niess said her organization is also "about the ships." But she invited NOON to open an informational booth at the entranceway to the ships.

"I understand there are different perspective and we welcome that as an educational institution to hear all history," Niess said. 

Lynn Cuda from Liverpool, who brought her grandchildren to see the ships, says she was glad to see both histories presented.

"I think it's a story that has to be told," Cuda said. "You have to hear history from different sides. The textbooks usually only present it one way."

Crew member Collin Foster's lecture about Columbus breezed through the consequences for Native Americans. But Oswego County BOCES summer school Principal Bob Nelson says he made sure to fill in the gaps for the students he brought.

"That’s what we like to do in the history class - how every action has a reaction," Nelson said. "Of course everybody is taught that 1492, Colubmus sailed the ocean blue. There’s a little bit more to that. So that’s what we try to show them, just to get them thinking a little bit."