Module 3. Our Story: Native Americans


For centuries, Native Americans lived, cultivated, and developed the lands in the Americas. The lands would not see significant changes until European contact in the late 15th century. Most readers would attribute the first European to come in contact with indigenous peoples to be renowned explorer Christopher Columbus. This is generally true, even though Norse explorer Leif Eriksson landed in Newfoundland in the 12th century.

Columbus was one of many skilled explorers of the 15th century dared to venture out into open ocean, first making their way down the African coast, then planning to sail out further into the Atlantic. Columbus, although an Italian in origin, gained a commission from the Spanish monarchy to explore and colonize new lands. The Spanish were highly motivated by the Reconquista, the campaign to “reconquer” Spain from the Muslims that had occupied their native lands for decades. In 1492, they accomplished their Reconquista and were eager for more victories. Due to Ottoman expansion, historic routes to the east were no longer viable, and Europeans were looking for another access point to eastern spices and other exotic goods.  Columbus was hired by the Spanish monarchs to find a new trade route to Asia in order to access highly coveted commodities.

When the Spanish made landfall in the Americas, not Asia as they planned, they sought to explore the Americas, searching for gold and other lucrative natural resources. Upon discovery, the indigenous peoples were dubbed “Indians,” for Columbus and his shipmates believed that they landed in the East Indies. The Spanish utilized the papal principle of the Doctrine of Discovery which sanctioned the colonization of the Americas and declared indigenous peoples’ non-Christian enemies that deserved the brutal conquest of their lands.

In Columbus’s journal, he recorded his observations of the indigenous people. He stated:

“It appeared to me to be a race of people very poor in everything…
They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion….” (Columbus, 1492)

Columbus shows an obvious superiority to the people he encountered by calling them poor, assuming they were without religion since they were not Christian, and declaring them to be of service to others like him. He shows intent to abuse and enslave, and this is the sentiment that many other Europeans would take as they began to colonize the Americas. From here on forward, Europeans set a precedence of Eurocentrism, the interpretation of non-European world civilizations in comparison to European culture. In these cases, European men like Columbus viewed the indigenous peoples as different and inferior, thus justifying abusive and malicious behavior.  Spanish Conquistadors continued to explore in the Caribbean, Central, and South America, trading, warring, and colonizing regions. It was the Spanish who set the precedent to establish colonies in the New World for the sole purpose of monetary benefit to its mother country. Eventually they established very lucrative settlements with systems that forced indigenous peoples and imported African slaves to work against their will. Soon other Europeans ventured into the New World with the hopes of establishing their own profitable settlements.


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer Copyright © 2022 by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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