Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century European Views of American Indian Landholding

I found my first History Lab of the semester vexing but promising.  The premise of the History Labs  in general was to provide students with an open-ended question, a question that could be answered in various ways, a question that students were capable of answering in a 75-minute class period.  This meant that I would not ask questions for which I was committed to a specific answer.  Finding this sort of question, focused on the content I needed the History Lab to cover, proved fairly difficult.

The focus of the first History Lab was sixteenth-century encounters between Native Americans and Europeans.  This is content I generally cover in lecture, where I reinforce the diversity of indigenous American nations and their sovereign claim to territory, and introduce European debates regarding this sovereignty.  In an ideal world, the History Lab would cover all of these topics as well, but if I could set up the assignment to cover at least part, I could lecture on the rest.  The open-ended and critical nature of the debate I wanted to have hampered me here, though, because I could not have students debate whether indigenous nations had sovereignty (because they did and do), I could not have them simply describe the many political systems of the American continents (because that is not a debate), I could not have them choose a side in European debates (because students would all choose one side or be required to argue for positions we now find reprehensible), and so on. I also had to find documents that were available and accessible to students.

Here is what I came up with, annotated with my critiques and additions for next time:
For History Lab 1, I gave students written documents and illustrations created by sixteenth-century Europeans and asked them to answer the following question: Do the illustrations produced by Theodor de Bry support or contradict European ideas about American Indian land ownership (as expressed in the written documents)?

To answer this question, I provided them with the following sources:

As the goal of the History Labs is to walk students through evaluating evidence, I provided students with a worksheet to evaluate the view of each source.  The worksheet required them to assess the authors'/artist's perspective on control and ownership of land.  It gave them an organized way to record their assessment with pertinent information, including the creator and date, and it required students to provide evidence for their analysis.  Students brought the worksheets to class and I divided them into groups of 3 to discuss and debate the question.

In many ways, this exercise worked well.  Students were uncomfortable, at first, with the evaluation of illustrations as sources, and this History Lab helped them to navigate that and gain confidence.  For many students, this was a new way to approach visual sources, and their questions about how to provide evidence from a picture meant that we discussed the nature of evidence in depth.  The readings were also not easy, in the sense that the language was not modern and informal.  Thus, students gained greater comfort in interpreting sources they often consider difficult.  As an exercise in primary sources, this History Lab was great.

I wonder, however, if this is the best History Lab for getting across to students the importance of Native North American societies and for understanding these nations on their own terms, or if it reinstates a European lens on the period.  The exercise only works if it is embedded in a detailed discussion of the meaning of land ownership and sovereignty.  For at least a partial framework, I find the distinction between individual ownership and collective sovereignty, as described by Cronon in Changes in the Land, to be very useful in explaining to students differences between ideas about land and territory in North America and Europe.  Cronon provides a very succinct differentiation that can then be complicated even more in individual situations.  If embedded in the right materials in the rest of the course, this History Lab could work well.

Of course, one of the sets of materials that works with this History Lab is in the essay question I assigned for the major paper in the course.  Students were required to write a 5-7 page essay, and they could select their question from a list of 4, each one linked to a completed History Lab.  More on the question that goes with this History Lab in a subsequent post.

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