Unit 1: First Peoples and Colonialism

LAS Curriculum Plan

Photo by Frederik Trovatten.com on Unsplash

Focus on the cultures of pre- and post-conquest Mesoamerica as a supplement to the study of North America’s indigenous peoples. The plan below is meant to be adapted to fit assignments, activities, and assessments that you might present to students in HIST 1110.

Unit Readings: American Yawp Chapters 1–3

Guiding Questions:

  • What did the Americas look like on the eve of European colonization?
  • What patterns did European colonization follow and what were First Peoples’ responses?

Instructor Bibliography — [could assign some of these to students]

Lesson and Activity

Why do all US History textbooks begin with an overview of indigenous societies across the Americas? Why not focus only on the section of North America that became the United States?

Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere, indigenous peoples inhabited all the reaches of North and South America. These continents were not empty, “virgin lands.” Instead, they encompassed a multiplicity of peoples with unique languages and rich cultural traditions.

Following the arrival of the first Europeans and during the conquest of the Western Hemisphere, Italian Amerigo Vespucci’s name became attached to the entire region — the Americas. Today, residents of Latin America use the term “America” in that same regional respect and they use the term norteamericanas/os to refer to citizens of the United States.

Writer Karina Martinez-Carter learned this during her time in Argentina. In other areas of the Americas, people consider US citizens’ appropriation of the term “American” to refer only to themselves as imperialistic. Read her 2013 account in The Atlantic:

Karina Martinez-Carter, “What Does ‘American’ Actually Mean?The Atlantic, 19 June 2013.

  • What comes to your mind when you hear the term “American”? Do you think about the United States? The hemisphere? Something else?
  • What do you think of Martinez-Carter’s experiences of learning about the broader definition of the term through her reading of Martí and her time in Argentina? Have you had any similar experiences?

Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest provides an important framework for thinking about broader, hemispheric histories of colonialism and conquest. His framework helps us to overcome popular misconceptions about relative power relations between indigenous peoples as well as misunderstandings about the diversity and complexity of Native America prior to 1492 and then during the conquests of the 1500s.

The Seven Myths:

  • 1) The myth of exceptional men

This is the idea that the “conquistadores” were somehow exceptional for their time and place. It’s true that their wealth and position of privilege often allowed them to take leading roles in the conquest. But their leadership wasn’t based on any special intelligence, bravery, or strength. Their names are attached to specific conquests (Cortés conquered the Aztecs, Alvarado conquered Guatemala, Pizarro conquered the Inkas, Oñate colonized the Pueblos, etc.), but none of them acted alone and none could have overcome indigenous resistance without the support of Native allies (the Tlaxcalans in the story of Cortés and the conquest of Mexico are the archetypical example) and interpreters, as well as the Europeans of lesser status who accompanied them in the hope of receiving an encomienda.

One of the reasons that this myth persists is due to the types of records that historians have to work with to understand this period. While it has been long understood that documents written by Spanish (and other European) colonists are heavily biased toward their own cultural understandings of the Americas and its indigenous peoples, specific types of documentation present specific issues of interpretation. One of the more prominent documents that conquistadores created were known as probanzas de mérito, or proof of merit. The archives of Spanish American history in places like Seville, Mádrid, Mexico City, and Lima contain thousands of examples of probanzas. In these letters to the king, conquistadores sought to prove that their efforts had been instrumental to the subjugation of a certain indigenous group so that they could be granted titles and positions of power in the colonial system. The very nature of the genre, then, meant that probanzas omitted any details that might cast the conquistador in a negative light and they embellished to make their actions seem worthy of reward.

Historians who didn’t take the context of the genre of the probanza documentation into account, reading those sources at face value, tended to overemphasize the role of specific conquistadores in the conquests of the Americas. And, they perpetuated this myth.

  • 2) The myth of the king’s army

This one refers to the widely held notion that European conquerors were well-equipped soldiers in the service of their kings. Instead, they were often men of poor or, at best, middling status who sought titles of nobility and wealth through serving with an adelantado (another term for the lead conquistador) who personally financed a conquest mission in the name of the king. As historian James Lockhart noted, they were “free agents, emigrants, settlers, unsalaried and ununiformed earners of encomienda and shares of treasure” (Restall, p 35). Encomienda was a grant that entitled the holder to Native tribute and labor as well as added status in Spanish colonial society. Despite supposed safeguards, encomienda often worked as a means of enslaving Native peoples, in practice.

  • 3) The myth of the White Conquistador

As noted above, many thousands of those who supported conquest missions were Native allies of the Spaniards. Yet, in the official Spanish documentation of those missions, Native allies are rarely mentioned. Evidence of their participation comes in the various post-colonial codices, oral history accounts, and Spanish legal documents that delineate certain privileges for the descendants of indigenous peoples who aided conquest missions. It was in a parenthetical note in his letter about the conquest of highland Guatemala, after failing to acknowledge the presence of indigenous allies, that Pedro de Alvarado told Hernán Cortés that along with his 250 Spaniards were “about five or six thousand friendly Indians” (Restall, p. 45).

Additionally, many people of African descent accompanied Spanish colonizers, either as slaves or free people. Remembering the arrival of Esteban (sometimes referred to as “Estebanico” or “Esteban el moro”) at the Zuni community of Hawikuh in 1539, the Pueblos noted that “the first white man to arrive in their homelands was a black man” (Surviving Columbus). Esteban had been a slave who survived the harrowing Navarez expedition along with Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca prior to his journey in search of the Seven Cities of Cíbola. Restall recounts the stories of Juan Garrido, a slave who accompanied several conquest missions in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, and Alonso Valiente, an enslaved African who received permission to accompany expeditions to Guatemala and Peru. Both received their freedom through their support of the colonizers.

And, at times women dressed as men to participate in colonization endeavors. The most famous example is Catalina de Erauso who left behind a detailed memoir of her experiences dressing as a man and participating in conflicts in various places in South America. Her story also broadens our understanding of gender and sexuality in the conquest era.

  • 4) The myth of completion

Lockhart’s notion of “double mistaken identity” best captures this myth. Although many Spaniards, particularly Catholic missionaries, believed that indigenous peoples understood and accepted the terms they gave them for conversion and subjugation to Spanish authority, indigenous peoples understood European ideas and concepts through the prism of their own cultural worldviews. As Lockhart interprets the process, “each side of the cultural exchange presumes that a given form or concept is functioning in the way familiar within its own tradition and is unaware of or unimpressed by the other side’s interpretation” (Restall, p. 76).

The myth of completion gets at the idea that although military confrontations were resolved relatively quickly and with some finality, the process of cultural assimilation to European ways (including observance of Catholicism, European styles of dress, use of Spanish language, etc) — considered key to the conquest of indigenous peoples — was never completed. The resilience and continuity of indigenous peoples and lifeways in the present further illustrate the reality that European conquests were never completed.

Cortez and Malinche meet Moctezuma II. , November 8, 1519. From “Lienzo de Tlaxcala,” Wikipedia Commons
  • 5) The myth of (mis)communication

This myth can also be traced to the claims made by Spanish, and other European, colonizers in letters and official documents. Malintzin (La Malinche or Doña Marina) is perhaps the most famous indigenous interpreter for a Spanish colonizer. Cortés and other chroniclers of the conquest of Mexico relayed her interpretations as if they were precisely the words of Moctezuma and other Mexica (the name of the ethnic group more commonly referred to as the Aztecs).

Malintzin was born in Coatzacoalcos, a Nahua community that owed tribute to the Mexica. As a young teenager, her family sold her to a group of Maya people. In 1519, following his arrival and dealings with the Maya on the Gulf Coast, Cortés was given a group of young women as a gift — among them Malintzin. She was only fifteen years old, and she had a talent for languages. In addition to Nahua and Maya dialects, she soon learned to speak Spanish. In so doing, she gained a position of privilege as one of Cortés’ translators.

In Malintzin’s Choices, historian Camilla Townsend examines her story within the cultural contexts in which she lived and acted. Although we don’t have a record of her own words to understand why she did what she did, Townsend reconstructs the context of Nahua society and the harsh realities of Spanish colonial ambitions as a means of understanding why Malintzin made the choices that she did. Her actions speak for her. Or as Restall reminds us, Malintzin’s “historical identity is based on what she said. Yet because she spoke the words of others, as their interpreter, she is also strangely silent” (Restall, p. 86).

In reality, Spanish colonizers and indigenous peoples, like Moctezuma, constantly spoke past one another through their interpreters in another instance of “double mistaken identity.” It’s telling that the name “Malinche” was a result of Spaniards’ inability to understand and pronounce the Nahua pronunciation of “Malintzin” (Restall, p. 83).

  • 6) The myth of native desolation

This myth has a parallel in the myths of United States History — that of the “Vanishing American” (title of a Zane Grey novel, a film, and a monograph by historian Brian Dippie). The idea is that, through the conquest of weaker peoples by more powerful ones, the inferior cultures and practices vanish. According to this idea, from the perspective of European colonizers, indigenous cultures would vanish over a few generations of colonial rule as Native peoples assimilated to the colonizers’ lifeways.

Early chroniclers of conquest battles in Mexico and Peru emphasized the notion of the *destruction* and *loss* of Native leaders and, by extension, their cultures and ways of seeing the world. Many citizens of the United States currently think of Native Americas as figures of history only, that their cultures aren’t still present in the current nation.

As Townsend and Restall show in their respective studies, indigenous peoples had a complex understanding of the natural world, of politics between different groups and within their own, and of their situations relative to European invaders. They made decisions about how to act based on nuanced understandings of their context.

  • 7) The myth of superiority

In class, I’ve often referred to the idea that European colonizers possessed a “superiority complex” relative to indigenous peoples. They saw their religion, their ways of understanding relationships, their modes of law and governance as superior to those of the peoples they encountered in the Americas. This trope was often reproduced in historical and literary accounts: “Spaniards conquered natives because they were superior, and they were superior because they conquered natives” (Restall, p. 132).

Yet, this belief did not mean that such was the reality of the relationship between colonizers and Native peoples.

Famously, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that indigenous peoples were not even human while Bartolomé de las Casas countered his argument and advocated for what became the New Laws of 1542. Among other things, that legislation officially ended encomienda, although that oppressive institution continued in practice. Pope Paul III decreed that indigenous peoples were indeed human and, as such, could not be subject to forced enslavement, despite his declaration that they were *heathens* (non-Christian). Despite these debates that influenced mythic descriptions of the conquest for the next five centuries, the conquest is “a mere episode in the globalization of access to resources of food production. . . . This process is too broad and complex to be understood in terms of the alleged and simple ‘superiority’ of one group of people over another” (Restall, p. 145).

Additionally, the debunked notion that the Mexica and Inka believed the Spaniards to be gods has been a key element of the myth of superiority. For an engaging account that shows how and why this myth persisted, see Camilla Townsend’s “Burying the White Gods.”

Apply what we’ve been studying:

Below are a few colonial-era primary sources. Read the context for each one, provided at their respective websites, and identify which of the seven myths the source demonstrates. In most cases, more than one of the seven will apply to a single source.

Also, what issues or ideas in the sources does the Seven Myths framework NOT take into account?

  1. Cortés’ account of “La Noche Triste” (8 November 1519), in his third letter to Carlos V.
  2. The New Laws of the Indies, 1542
  3. Moctezuma meets Cortés, from Lienza de Tlaxcala (with context)
  4. Mexica Accounts of Moctezuma Meeting Cortés, Florentine Codex
  5. Spaniards given gifts of women after defeating Tabascans, from Bernal Díaz del Castillo

For a comparison of how indigenous women have been cast in highly different ways in terms of national historical memories, see Jasmine Garsd, “Despite Similarities, Pocahontas Gets Love, Malinche Gets Hate. Why?” NPR Goats and Soda, 25 November 2015. Accessed 6 May 2021.

And, for more on Mexica/Aztec conceptions of time and history, see Camilla Townsend, “How the Aztecs Told History,” Aeon, 10 August 2020.



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Brandon Morgan

Brandon Morgan

CC History Instructor, father of three, and researcher of the Borderlands, U.S. West, and Modern Mexico. Working on a book about Violence and the rural border.