Select Text Level:

“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:
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”)?
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?
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”?
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?

    • Answer

      Both Europeans and Native Americans relied almost entirely on word-of-mouth from people who had encountered other cultures previously.

      Europeans had reliable written communication, but travel could be slow. Few Native American communities had a written language, but they did have quicker communications networks.

      Europeans and Native Americans likely heard inaccurate rumors about each other. Think about:

      • translation. Not only did Europeans and Native Americans speak different languages, but the languages in Europe and the Americas were wildly different among themselves. (Think about the differences between Spanish and English, or Quechua and Algonquin.) 
      • non-verbal communication. Simple activities like smiling or waving could have vastly different meanings to different communities with different histories and associations.
      • fear and discomfort. First contact in the Americas introduced groups that appeared radically different from each other—different clothes, different language and communication, different transportation and transit networks, different land-use patterns. These immediate differences were often met with fear and mistrust, and stories about first contact may have emphasized or even invented elements supporting those fears and suspicions.

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

    • Answer

      Answers will vary. Dig deeper with these questions:

      • How would you communicate with someone from a culture you did not recognize, speaking a language with which you were completely unfamiliar?
      • What would you try to communicate?
      • How would you interpret their communication efforts?
      • Assume you had some knowledge of a new culture, and some ability to arrange a “first contact” encounter. Would the physical environment make a difference? Would you try to conduct your meeting indoors or outdoors? Day or night?
      • How would you present yourself? What clothes would you wear? Why? Would you bring any materials, such as gifts, weapons, displays of wealth or power? What would they be? Why?

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

    • Answer

      Answers will vary. Dig deeper with these questions:

      • Do you think being a woman or man would impact communications?
      • Do you think being a leader or worker would impact communications?
      • How might the weather impact communication?

  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”?

    • Answer

      Answers will vary.

      • First contact is usually a brief exchange. Communication is often limited and polite, as each side assesses the characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of the other. Second contacts are often negotiations—what each community wants from the other, and what they’re prepared to give. Negotiations, even positive and friendly ones, involve more labor than “handshake” meetings. Different legal codes can lead to very contentious and, sometimes, disastrous outcomes.

  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. 

    • Answer

      Choose an instance of first contact by geography:

      • the Amazon rain forest?
      • the Great Lakes?
      • Tierra del Fuego?
      • the Aleutian Islands?
      • the Great Plains?

      Choose an instance of first contact by people:

      • What Europeans made contact? British? Spanish? Portuguese? Dutch? Russian?
      • What Native Americans made contact? Comanche? Guarani? Powhatan? Zapotec? Tlingit?

      Choose an instance of first contact by interaction:

      • religious conversion?
      • military conflict?
      • trade and exchange?
      • aid and support?


sharing of information and ideas.


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


to meet, especially unexpectedly.


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

indigenous people

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