by Jane Yolen
Encounter, by Jane Yolen, presents the perspective of a young Taino boy’s encounter with the arrival of Columbus. His Island, Guanahani, or present day San Salvador, was bountiful in natural resources. He dreamt a warning of these men with ‘moon skin’ and ‘serpent smiles.’ No one listened to his cries of caution, because he was "only a child." He too forgot about his dream when the strange men gave the villagers beautiful beads and weaponry. When he remembered his dream, and observes the actions of the newcomers, he sees their greedy hands only touching the villagers’ gold jewelry. Again he warns his people, and again no one listens to him. He is taken aboard the strangers' ship with other boys, and later jumps off at see. He wanders the rest of his life cautioning the tribes that he encounters of the men that took his people and their riches. Yolen provides more detail about the conquest of the Tainos in her Author’s Note.
This book is perfect for introducing Element Three: Exploring Issues of Social Injustice. Slavery, genocides, and colonization are underlying issues in the history of Columbus’ arrival in the “New World,” and a deep part of our nation’s history. Instead of presenting a heroic figure of Columbus, like most children’s books and textbooks do, it shows how an indigenous boy felt as he saw the conquest of his people unravel. The oppression of the native peoples is not often thought about on days such as Columbus Day. Columbus Day is one of the two federal holidays named after men; surely students should know the truth of who this person is. Yolen acknowledges the devastation brought to the Native Americans in a way that is not very gruesome. The last page is not a “Happily Ever After” page, but a great one for sparking critical thought and empathy of their struggles.
Creating a Compare-and-Contrast chart as a class would be a beneficial way to incorporate this book as a literacy activity. For a Compare-and-Contrast chart you would go through the ideas and preconceptions everyone holds of Columbus, and write them on one side of the chart. You would then read Encounter together as a class, and the author’s note last. Give the children time to process their thoughts and new knowledge, and have them brainstorm compare-and-contrast statements for the chart in small groups. You can then ask the groups to share what they came up with and add it to the chart. At the end, discuss how different or similar the preconceptions were to the knowledge gained after reading Encounter.
As a drama-play, you could have the students bring a special item from home into the classroom and reenact what Columbus’ men did to the Tainos. Taking away personal things without asking, the teacher would just walk up to a desk and take what the student brought in and place it on a table. Tell the students that you are taking these object with you back to your house, and they cannot do anything about it. Once this part of the exercise is finished you can lead a discussion revolving around empathy one might feel for the Tainos after the ‘skit’ by the teacher.
At the end of one of these activities you can have a discussion about how the behavior that came with colonization during the time of Columbus would play out in this day and age.
- What would other nations do?
- Would the UN get involved?
- What is/are the United Nations?
- What are the people’s options for defending themselves?
- Does our country help?
–are all good lead in questions.