Wednesday, November 28, 2012


We have all heard the story of Columbus's voyage from the European perspective, but what would it have looked like to the Taino? There are countless written records of the Spanish experience from journals and other accounts, but little remains of the Taino. They were virtually wiped out within 50 years of Columbus's arrival and many of their crafts and artifacts were either lost, destroyed, or in the case of gold objects, melted down to add to the royal Spanish coffers.

As a result, it is impossible to know exactly what their experience was like. Jane Yolen, however, the famous  author of young adult novels like The Devil's Arithmetic and several picture books, has researched the Taino and created her interpretation of what this first encounter must have been like. In the picture book Encounter, Yolen describes Columbus's arrival in the perspective of a young Taino boy.

Just as the Spanish described the strange customs, attire and appearance of the "Indians," Yolen's narrator makes the same observations of the "parrot-like" appearance, "pale moon" skin and bushy beards of the soon-to-be conquerors.

While most discussions of Columbus's discovery/exploration/devastation of the so-called West Indies are now more nuanced and include conversations about slavery, illness, greed and racism, few yet consider the viewpoint of the Taino. I have found that this book strikes a chord with students of all ages and I often use it to begin our discussion of Columbus and New Spain.

Many students used to wonder why American Indians behaved in the ways that they did in welcoming the strangers and making unwise trades and treaties for seemingly useless objects. This book, however, captures the wonder, custom, religion and even some greedy desire on the side of the Taino and represents them not as naive and child-like as so many accounts do, but as victims with their own beliefs and agendas.

The story is short and relatively simple and makes for a good introductory read-aloud for students of all ages. The discussions that arise from the text and the widened perspective that results are much more complex and valuable. The kids really enjoy reading literature, particularly outside the usual material, so I highly recommend using books like this to expand the conversations in your classroom.


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