Activity 14:History and Human Rights
A Process for Analyzing Events


Many topics in American history can be used to analyze events. (See list of suggested American History topics.) Throughout this activity we will use the encounter between the Spanish and the Taino peoples in the 15th century as an example. The Spanish in 1492 were looking for a water route to the riches of China and the east, when they "discovered" the South American continent. The Taino were the first native people the Spanish encountered in the western hemisphere in the place now called Haiti.

Usually the sources we use to study this encounter are from the point of view of the Spanish. Many of the materials are excellent eyewitness accounts from Columbus, soldiers, priests, and others with varying perspectives. However, we also need to hear from the Tainos in order to fully understand the clash of cultures that occurred. One good source is View from the Shore, edited by Jose Barreiro (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University American Indian Program, 1990).


PART A: Suggested American History topics for analysis:

  • The drafting of the Bill of Rights

  • The forced removal of the Cherokee Nation

  • The Dred Scott Decision

  • Women workers in the 19th century New England textile industry

  • Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South

  • The Pullman Strike

  • Immigration restrictions and quotas

  • Child labor regulations

  • The temperance movement

  • Women’s Suffrage

  • The Social Security Act

  • The Fair Labor Standards Act

  • Desegregation of the US Military

  • Japanese internment

  • The House Un-American Activities Committee

  • Major League baseball integration

  • The Pentagon Papers and freedom of the press

  • Student protests against the Vietnam War

  • The death penalty for juveniles

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act

  • The Sanctuary Movement

  • Welfare reform

  • The Amistad case

PART B: Questions

1. Before you begin, make sure your resources are a good mix of both primary (eyewitness) and secondary (removed from the action) sources from all sides of the issue.

  • Include those in power and those traditionally marginalized. Your sources will reflect the biases of whoever created them.

  • Analyze the sources for their biases and identify any stereotypes; try to see beyond them while analyzing the event/issue. Sometimes the bias holds clues as to what happened – why there was conflict in the first place.

2. Analyze the event/issue for the rights that the people involved believed were important.

  • Be sure to use the definition of "rights" that was used at that time. Look at all sides of the issue and identify the rights from all perspectives.

  • Were any rights in conflict? In other words: were people fighting for rights that conflicted with each other? What caused these conflicting perspectives?

For example: From the Taino perspective, there was one overarching right: the right to be well fed. Everyone worked to see that all members of the community had enough food. They also believed women had the right to power and had male as well female chiefs.

From the Spanish point of view, there were two main rights: 1) the right (and responsibility) to wage war in order to convert the Taino and take their land and resources, which the Pope had given to the Spanish crown. 2) the right to the forced labor of the Tainos through the "encomienda system." Under this system, the Spanish crown gave or "commended" Tainos to Spaniards, who then owned the rights to their labor. In return the Spaniards were to Christianize the Indians and protect them. Many Taino starved to death under this system. (Students will readily be able to discuss rights in conflict here).

3. Analyze the actions people took during this event.

  • List some specific actions that affected many people.

  • Were some rights being violated to gain others?

  • Were people silent who could have helped the situation?

  • Did others take risks to protect rights?

For example: The Spanish enslaved the Taino so that they would mine gold for them and do other manual labor. Dominican friars forced them to convert to Christianity or risk torture and death. (The Inquisition was in full force at this time.) Some Spanish protested the treatment of the Taino and great debates were held at Valladolid in Spain to discuss whether or not the Taino were humans with certain rights. The King of Spain suspended colonization to wait for the outcome of these debates, but after two years of debate, no decision could be reached. Not understanding why gold was more important than food, the Taino offered to grow all the food the Spanish wanted in return for their freedom. When that tactic failed, the Taino resisted in various ways including sending envoys to the King, insurrections, migration, major rebellions, and suicide. They also asked Bartolome de Las Casas, a Dominican friar later called "the Apostle to the Indians," to represent them in Spain. (Delving into this story will help students discover those who took risks and others who did not).

4. What were the short-term outcomes?

  • Who won? Who lost?

  • Whose rights were strengthened? Whose were violated?

  • Whose power was strengthened? Whose weakened?

  • Did resistance continue or was it silenced by those in power?

  • Was the overall result positive or negative for people in general?

For example: The Taino lost a great deal. By 1548 there were fewer than 500 Taino people left on the island of Hispaniola (out of an estimated 2.5 to 7 million in 1492). The others were either dead or had fled to other islands in the area. The resistance of other native peoples to colonization has continued to this day. The Spanish eventually gained all the Taino traditional land but abolished the encomienda system. They turned to enslaving Africans instead. The Spanish definition of rights held for centuries as Spanish culture spread throughout the Americas. (Opinions will vary on whether these facts are positive or negative).

5. What were the long-term outcomes?

  • What precedents were set in the area of human rights that are still affecting us today (either negatively or positively)?

  • Check the "rights" involved in this event against the rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948).

  • Which of those considered rights during the time of your event are still considered rights today? Which are no longer thought of as rights?

  • Do you believe that this event contributed to decisions made by the UN in 1948 either directly or indirectly?

For example: Some historians argue that the debates at Valladolid marked the beginning of the end for the medieval world view and the beginning of the modern era which led to the Enlightenment. People still debate the ideas of a "just war" and what rights we have simply by virtue of being human. Others still view some people, including women and indigenous peoples, as inferior humans suited only for manual labor, servitude, or death. It could be argued that this point of view led to genocide and the Holocaust, which eventually led to the adoption of the UDHR in the 20th century. The rights that survived to this day are the Taino rights to food and political power for women.

Source: Elise A. Guyette, historian, educator at Camel's Hump Middle School, Richmond, Vermont; Patrick Manson and David Shiman, Human Rights Educators Network, Amnesty International USA.

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