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
- The Dred Scott Decision
- Women workers in the 19th century
New England textile industry
- Reconstruction in the post-Civil
- The Pullman Strike
- Immigration restrictions and quotas
- Child labor regulations
- The temperance movement
- Womens Suffrage
- The Social Security Act
- The Fair Labor Standards Act
- Desegregation of the US Military
- Japanese internment
- The House Un-American Activities
- Major League baseball integration
- The Pentagon Papers and freedom
of the press
- Student protests against the Vietnam
- The death penalty for juveniles
- The Americans with Disabilities
- 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
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
- 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
- List some specific actions that affected
- Were some rights being violated to
- Were people silent who could have
helped the situation?
- Did others take risks to protect
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
4. What were the short-term outcomes?
- Who won? Who lost?
- Whose rights were strengthened? Whose
- Whose power was strengthened? Whose
- 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
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.
A. Guyette, historian, educator
at Camel's Hump Middle School,
Richmond, Vermont; Patrick Manson
and David Shiman, Human Rights
Educators Network, Amnesty International