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Columbus and the Native Americans1400s

Context for this Lesson

Teaching Strategies: 
School or Organization: 

Lesson created by Lara Dossett and Katie McKay
Guiding questions:
 What was the perspective and what were the motivations of the explorers who came to the Americas?
What was the perspective of and impact on the Native American tribes?
What residual impact has that had on Native Americans of today?
Materials Needed:
Large paper and markers, or board space for scribing, copies of the image or one large copy


Facilitator introduces the activity and leads quick brainstorm: Today we’re going to continue learning about Christopher Columbus. What do we already know about him? (Scribe key words)
 We’ll start our work today with a quote from Dwayne Stenstrom, who is a professor of American history. His office is lined with towers of obscure books and poetry on the walls. There's even a copy of the Declaration of Independence in a binder. Do we all remember what the Declaration of Independence is? (Unpack) Does anyone remember the first line?
He teaches this document like many other professors, beginning with,
"We hold these truths to be self evident." But he stops on another phrase — "the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages."
"What [is] significant to me," Stenstrom says, "is the impact that it has on a lot of our Native American kids when it still regards Indians as merciless Indian savages."
Let’s look at some of the key vocabulary in this statement. What is this person concerned about? (underline key vocabulary: self evident, inhabitants, merciless, savages, significant, impact) What do some of these words mean? (help group define any words that feel confusing...)  (Scribes)
D:  What words stand out on the page to you?
A: How might a Native American student today be impacted by these words in our country’s Declaration of Independence?
R: How do these words relate to our study of explorers?
Transition: Let’s keep in mind the quote while we take a look at this image.
Read the Image: Observe Christopher Columbus and Native American image
D: What do you see in this picture?
A: What are these people doing? Why might this be important? Who might these people be?
R: Let’s relate this image to the quote we started with today, what do you see in this picture which connects with our quote? Why?
Transition: There was no one there that day to take a picture of Columbus actually arriving in America. Here’s a description of exactly what happened that day from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Let’s listen to see if this image relates to what Howard Zinn is describing.
Chapter 1: Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress
~Howard Zinn
Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned... . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... . They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.
Columbus wrote:
As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.
Quick reflection on the photo
·         What did we just learn? (Quickly turn to partners to discuss, then share with the whole group: Think, Pair, Share)
·         How does Columbus feel about these natives? How does he describe them? (Think, Pair, Share)
Transition: (Scribe) How does this information effect how we interpret the photo? Let’s imagine that someone was actually there taking the picture that day. We’re going to re-create this image for ourselves keeping in mind Columbus’ impression of the natives and what actually happened when they met.


 Create image through embodiment:  
“We’re going to create our own version of this photo. Create what really happened that day when Columbus landed.”
MAKE A LIST OF POSSIBLE CHARACTERS ON BOARD (generate these with students):
His men
Natives, maybe a native leader?
Anyone else?

  • Set up a playing area (the land where the two meet for the first time)
  • Encourage them to stage the most dynamic moment possible, “Remember it’s their first meeting!”
  • Build one character at a time. Columbus might be the first person in the tableaux, or it could be a native.
  • After Columbus is in the tableau and you have analyzed how the character looks ask the whole class to stand and embody a feeling or trait  (you choose one, like angry or powerful)  of the character. 
  • As each character adds, define the character’s point of view. Look for multiple perspectives and where people’s perspectives might come from.

·         Only 7-8 students should be in the picture. The rest are the audience, observing and responding. If there are controlled opportunities to add more students, you can.
As characters add to image, offer questions:

    • D:  What do you see in their body language?  What do you see?
    • A: What do we think these people’s relationship might be? Why? Focusing on a person: “Let’s pretend this person has a thought bubble over their head, what might this person be thinking in this moment? Why?”
    • R: In our Explorers’ projects we’ve asked you to consider what impact your explorer had on the native populations. What about the native Americans may have changed upon their first encounters with European explorers?

NOTE: When the characters are fully established in the tableaux take a moment to ask the rest of the class to identify a character they connect with in the tableau. Either sitting or standing, ask them to create that character in their own bodies on the count of 3. (This could be repeated for another character as well. This gives every student the opportunity to embody a character even if they are not in the tableau.)
·         Scribe any new characters that we have developed as we are teaching.
·         Have all students sit at the end.


Transition: Let’s imagine, now, that each of the characters in our picture went home that night and wrote in the diary about what happened that day.  Think about the image we created. Choose one person from our list of characters and write a diary entry from that person’s point of view, as if you are that person, describing what happened that day. Be sure to include specific detail, and YOUR character’s point of view about the events.