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“First contact” describes an initial encounter between cultures that were previously unaware of each other. In the Americas, “first contact” almost always refers to first contact between indigenous peoples and Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries.
 
In reality, of course, the Americas were populated by millions of people from thousands of culturally distinct communities. There were thousands of “first contacts” between these groups, as well as later European immigrants.
 
When introducing concepts surrounding first contact in the Americas, groups such as Teaching Tolerance and Native Americans of New England have outstanding resources to help guide your pedagogy.
 
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
 
Naming
 
How are Europeans and Native Americans identified by name in first-contact stories?
• Why do students think Europeans are likely to be identified by individual names and nationalities?
• Why do students think Native Americans are less likely to be identified as individuals or with their cultural community (such as Inupiat or Aztec), and more likely to be identified with groups on a continental (Native American) or global (indigenous) scale? What impact might this identification have on individuals or communities?
• How are Europeans described in first-contact stories? Discuss words like explorer, discoverer, merchant, immigrant, missionary, sailor, colonialist, colonizer. What associations do students make with these descriptive terms? 
• How are Native Americans described in first-contact stories? Are they described by their actions (“explorer”), status in their own society (“leader”), or by European assumptions about how that society works (“daughter of a chief”)?
 
Representation
 
How are Europeans and Native Americans visually represented in first-contact stories?
• In historic images by later European artists, what are people doing? How are they dressed? What is the physical environment? 
• How have Native American artists depicted first contact? Why do students think there might be significant differences between native and European representations of the same event?
• Most representations of first contact were created decades, and even centuries, after the event. How do students think representations of an historic event change over time?
 
Legacy
 
How are 21st-century identities represented in first-contact stories?
• How are European and American nationalities integrated with earlier imperial or colonial identities? (Is Spain equated with the Spanish Empire? Mexico with the Viceroyalty of New Spain?)
• How are contemporary indigenous identities integrated with first-contact communities sometimes dismissed as “culturally extinct”?
 
Standards
 
Concepts surrounding first contact in the Americas are especially relevant for:
• 5th grade: For example, California History-Social Science Content Standard 5-3: Students describe the cooperation and conflict that existed among the American Indians and between the Indian nations and the new settlers.
• 7th grade: For example, California History-Social Science Content Standard 7-7: Students compare and contrast the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the Meso-American and Andean civilizations.
 
For Students
 
Consult the “Questions” tab to encourage further inquiry into first contact in the Americas.
  1. At the time of first contact, both Europeans and Native Americans had effective communications systems. After 1492, both parties were often vaguely aware of the other before an in-person “first contact.” What do you think each group may have heard about the other? How do you think they heard these rumors?

  2. What communications strategies or approaches do you think indigenous and European explorers may have used during first contact?

  3. What personal, community, or environmental factors may have impacted first contact meetings?

  4. Scroll through our timeline above. In some cases, first contact was a positive encounter, but “second contact” was problematic. Why? What issues might complicate “second contact”?

  5. Our short timeline is just a very brief introduction to first contact in the Americas. Investigate first contact stories in other parts of the Americas. 

communication
Noun

sharing of information and ideas.

culture
Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

encounter
Verb

to meet, especially unexpectedly.

immigration
Noun

process of moving to a new country or region with the intention of staying and living there.

indigenous people
Noun

ethnic group that has lived in the same region for all of their known history.