By Bill Bigelow
This role play begins from the premise that a monstrous crime was committed in the years after 1492, when perhaps as many as 3 million or more Taínos on the island of Hispaniola lost their lives. (Most scholars estimate the number of people on Hispaniola in 1492 at between 1 and 3 million; some estimates are lower and some much higher.)
Who — and/or what — was responsible for this slaughter? This is the question students confront in the activity.
The intent of the lesson is to prompt students to wrestle with the roots of colonial violence. When I taught this, it came at the conclusion of a longer unit about the meaning of the European arrival in the Americas, one which included reading Taíno scholar José Barreiro’s “The Taínos: ‘Men of the Good,’” in Rethinking Columbus, which explicitly critiques the notion of the Taíno as “primitive.” As Barreiro writes, “the Taínos strove to feed all the people, and maintained a spirituality that respected most of their main animal and food sources, as well as the natural forces like climate, season, and weather. The Taíno lived respectfully in a bountiful place so their nature was bountiful.” Barreiro notes that “There was little or no quarreling observed among the Taínos by the Spaniards.”
Students and I also read excerpts from Columbus’s journal, included in Rethinking Columbus, which hint at the violence and exploitation to come: “They do not bear arms or know them, for I showed them swords and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance” — a quote that students find chilling. On his third day with these “gentle” people, October 14, 1492, Columbus concludes that “with 50 men they would be all kept in subjection and forced to do whatever may be wished…”
The more students know about Spain, Columbus’s voyages, Taíno culture, details of Columbus’s strategies to extract wealth from the people and land of the Caribbean, and Taíno resistance, the more effective this trial activity will be. But a caveat: The trial is not an introductory activity. A critical look at colonialism begins with the people being encountered prior to colonization, not with the domination those people experienced.
I wrote the lesson in 1991. Lots changed over my 30-year teaching career, but one thing stayed sadly consistent: Year after year, my high school U.S. history students had never heard of the Taíno people. Early in my classes, I asked students if they could name the guy some people say “discovered America.” There was never any shortage of students calling out “Columbus!” Then I asked, “OK. Who did he supposedly discover? Who was here first?” Sometimes a few students would say, “Indians.” But I’d say, “No. I mean which specific nationality? What were the names of the people he found?” In all my years of teaching, I never had a single student say: “The Taínos” — much less be able to name any individual Taíno. I told my students their name, and that there were at least hundreds of thousands of Taínos, possibly millions. “What does it say,” I asked, “that we all know the name of the fellow from Europe, a white man, but none of us can name who was here first?”
“The People vs. Columbus et al.” was — and is — part of a broader effort to bring the Taíno people into the curriculum, to insist that their lives matter. Columbus’s policies toward the Taíno meet the United Nations’ definition of genocide. But there has also been an almost complete curricular erasure of the Taíno people, and it is up to educators to address this silence in our classes.
The lesson begins as follows:
1. In preparation for class, list the names of all the “defendants” on the board: Columbus, Columbus’ men, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and the System of Empire.
2. Tell students that each of these defendants is charged with murder — the murder of the Taíno Indians in the years following 1492. Tell them that, in groups, students will portray the defendants and that you, the teacher, will be the prosecutor. Explain that students’ responsibility will be twofold: a) to defend themselves against the charges, and b) to explain who they think is guilty and why.
A pedagogical note: Recently, there has been much discussion — and controversy — about role plays. It’s a term that embraces strategies the Zinn Education Project supports, and others we oppose. Some school activities — “role plays” — demand that students “recreate traumatic experiences,” in the words of Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Ohio State University professor. No Zinn Education Project activity engages in this kind of teaching. In this and other ZEP role plays, we do not ask students to perform. Although Columbus enslaved Taíno people, and ordered his men to spread “terror,” as documented by the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, students do not act any of this out in this role play. Instead, the role play asks students to attempt to represent different individuals’ and social groups’ points of view, to wrestle with who or what was responsible for the crimes against the Taínos. The “drama” in this activity is sparked by the intellectual and ethical questions students discuss, not by reenacting historical events. [Read How to — and How Not to — Teach Role Plays.]
The trial role play is excerpted from Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, which includes more context for the events dealt with in the lesson, including “The Taínos: ‘Men of the Good,'” by José Barriero; a critical reading activity of Columbus’s diary on his first contact with Indigenous people; a timeline of Spain, Columbus, and Taínos with teaching ideas; and an adaptation from the writings of Bartolomé de las Casas on the first Spanish priest to denounce the Spanish brutality in Hispaniola.
We also recommend Indigenous Cuba: Hidden in Plain Sight by José Barreiro in the National Museum of the American Indian and Whose History Matters? Students Can Name Columbus, But Most Have Never Heard of the Taíno People by Bill Bigelow in the Zinn Education Project “If We Knew Our History” series.
Scenes from the Classroom
Students engaged in the People vs. Columbus trial. (Teacher: Julian Hipkins, 11th grade at CCPCS in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Rick Reinhard, 2012)
Stories from the Classroom
The People vs. Columbus trial has been my most successful and popular lesson in the two years I taught it. Not only do students get to learn the extent of the atrocities committed by Spanish colonizers, but they get to engage in higher order thinking (one of my grad school buzzwords I think about a lot!) on the factors that cause historical atrocities to occur.
I LOVE how “the system of empire” is one of the options for students to blame or defend. This has generated some of the most challenging discussions I’ve seen in my class so far, as students say, “The king and queen would not have sent Columbus if they hadn’t been acting within the system!” and retort, “But the system is made up of individuals, and each have their own choices!” This thinking about structure vs. agency is a level of thinking in social studies that was not made explicit to me until college, and I am thrilled that this assignment has given my students an opportunity to delve into core disciplinary questions.
They get excited about it, too ― I’ve had students leap up in the trial, hollering their positions to each other in attempts to convince a jury of their peers. At the end of the trial this year, as the jury came back with the verdict, one of my students reflected, “I think that Columbus is like Trump, and the Tainos are like the Mexican people…” This prompted a discussion about how colonial-type oppression works in our current society, leading one student to observe, “You know, I think WE live within a system.” I asked them if they thought that they had any agency within the system, and they had a really thoughtful conversation about it.
Your resources truly fill a well left dry – not by forgetfulness, but by the same racist systems that perpetuate the injustices my students face on a daily basis in schools.
The Zinn Education Project made untold history come to life for students working on the People vs. Columbus tribunal. Students were immersed in building background knowledge by reading the indictments, working together, and using teacher-created graphic organizers to build a defense and a strong prosecution.
The lesson captivated the attention of my students in the online environment, fostered collaboration and highlighted rigorous writing, reading, and speaking & listening standards as we work our way through a delicate piece of history that not many know and everyone should appreciate.
Students remarked at the end of the first day in trial how fun and engaging the work was and how much they were learning by working together, interacting with the teacher and rereading the indictments to write argument pieces to present to class. Seeing the students produce quality work aligned to standards and related to our curriculum content is a magical feeling for a teacher and I for one am humbled it happened in my classroom.
I am grateful I had robust materials to use, a guide for instruction, and the opportunity to create. I am eager to continue to use more Zinn Education Project resources with my students in the future.
The science teacher told me that students were arguing during lunch about The People vs. Columbus et al. trial and who was to blame. This was the first time all school year he has heard students really talking about what they were learning outside of class time. To hear ninth graders thinking critically about how much of a person’s action reflects individual choice vs. what society compels them to do and then applying that to major events in world history is amazing. Thank you, Zinn Education Project.
When I first came across this website, one of the first activities I read was People vs. Columbus, et al. and I immediately began preparations to use it in my world history classes. After providing background information from A People’s History and various primary sources, we set the trial up.
My students’ reactions after the trial concludes can easily be described as unsettled. Never before had they heard of the crimes committed against the indigenous peoples of the “new world.” Never before did they realize the impact Europeans had on the indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere.
I have a writing assignment attached to this activity. In two paragraphs, I ask that they tell me who they think is to blame for the crimes. I also ask if they think we should still celebrate Columbus Day.
Afterward, we take a look at our textbook. We look at the one paragraph devoted to Columbus in which it describes his ability to persuade Queen Isabella in 1492. That’s it. That’s all it says. Thanks to the Zinn Education Project, my students have a better understanding of the impact left by him and other Europeans. Now, they know more than just the year he sailed and the color of the ocean.
I always begin my U.S. history course with the People vs. Columbus, et al Trial. It is amazing how engaged students become to not only learn the truth but also be able to defend themselves using the evidence provided. Students love creativity and this case allows students to come to their own conclusions.
More Classroom Stories
As a teacher, the Zinn Education Project website is invaluable because it provides activities that directly relate to A People’s History. Last week we did The People vs. Columbus, et al. which places all the parties involved in the arrival of Columbus on trial for the murder of the Tainos. The activity was so interactive that teachers from other classrooms had to ask us to quiet down. Students were able to better understand the motives and consequences behind the arrival.
Even though A People’s History can be a bit difficult for some students, the activities on the Zinn Education Project website makes the content accessible regardless of their reading level.
My students were completely engaged in The People vs. Columbus trial we held about the massacre of the Taíno people. They loved it! They were so outraged that Columbus Day is a federal holiday that I suggested we send letters to the editors of local newspapers and our city council. They were so excited. Most of the students chose to send letters. When a student’s letter was published the next day advocating for our city to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, the students who had not yet sent letters immediately began to write their own.
It was a powerful lesson in civics, especially since my students are disenfranchised and feel like they don’t have power to effect change politically.
When I do the Christopher Columbus lesson, the students are blown away. They are usually so surprised at the truth behind Columbus. They also love the role-playing. This year, when I was doing the lesson, my assistant principal walked in just as one of the students who usually sits quietly during social studies was standing up and asking a fiery round of questions to the defendants on the stand. I was so impressed with it. The lesson also gets students who I usually don’t get a lot of participation out of to debate with the students who I do. I love it!
The People vs. Columbus trial was so effective. I taught it in a Native American Studies course and the students spent a lot of time exploring primary source documents from Columbus and Las Casas.
It was powerful to watch them transform into excellent and passionate litigators, but basing their arguments upon historical evidence. Also, the power of role plays to induce empathy and compassion for various points of view was evident.
My students are all Native American and they are all too familiar with the concepts of genocide and exploitation. However, many of them did not know about the Taíno and were curious to learn more. At the conclusion we watched the film Even the Rain to enhance their understanding of the texts, and also to learn more about the Cochabamba water war to piece together an interdisciplinary unit about water that they were engaged in.
The Christopher Columbus trial is a phenomenal lesson to use with students. First, it forces them to think about the construct of our globalized world in a new and critical manner. Americans are bred upon the unchallenged idea of superiority and equality, and it is troubling for them to have to see that the true pillars of trade, colonization, exploration, and expansion are instead rooted in forced inferiority and exploitation. This lesson further challenges students to give up the stereotypes and nostalgia surrounding Native Americans (in this case on Hispaniola) and see them as people who had functioning societies and belief systems. The most powerful aspect of the lesson, however, is the way it forces students to research, utilize primary resources, think in a debate-like manner, and justify their positions with evidence.
One of my students returned to visit me last month to inform me that because of partaking in this lesson last year, he joined an online group advocating the end of Columbus Day. I was impressed to have a 10th grade student not only take a firm stand on something, but actually take action to incite change. Another of my students said that this “was the best lesson I ever learned because it helped me believe that there is ‘real’ history I can learn from.”
Beyond the Classroom
Student Film Critiques Textbook Accounts and Hero Worshipping
D.C. high school teacher Julian Hipkins III used The People vs. Columbus, et al. lesson with his 11th grade U.S. history class at Capital City Public Charter School and introduced them to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Four of his students (Jared, Ana Marie, Jonah, and Mayra) were inspired to make a film called Columbus—The Real Story. Using feature film clips and interviews with school staff, the film critiques and analyzes textbook accounts of Columbus. Columbus—The Real Story was selected as a D.C. citywide entry for the 2011 National History Day competition.