The first part of this unit will be a discussion of what colonialism was and why it was so advantageous for European nations to practice it. It is important for students to understand that colonies were important for the economies of European nations. Students understand the desire to make money and look powerful. With this constructivist connection teachers can help students to realize that colonies were created to make money and increase the prestige of the parent nation. Through the uses of a world map students will identify the major countries that were involved in colonizing the Americas, and the respective areas of the Americas that they colonized. In addition a discussion of the resources that were economically attractive to Europeans will help the students to understand the economies of the time, and to help them realize that human needs and desires change over time. Some resources to mention could be furs, lumber, exotic food stuffs such as sugar, tobacco, and of course precious metals. Basically we give students a reason why Colonialism began, and what brought Europeans to the New World, so they can come to understand what happened when Europeans came into contact with Native cultures.
The Change from Native to European Communities
When Europeans arrived in the New World they in many ways set out to replicate the society they had known in Europe. They created many of the same institutions that had been present in Europe, and they attempted to change their physical landscape to more closely resemble that of Europe's. As Native American land was either bought or taken, the small Native communities that had populated the area gave way to the more permanent settlements of Europeans. This entailed a clearing of forest that left unmistakable changes on the land. The sheer amount of deforestation is incredible. For example, at one low point Connecticut had as little as 4% of its area covered in forest. One traveler of the time period reported that in his 240 mile journey from Boston to New York that he passed through only 20 miles of forested area. (Cronon 1983) This kind of deforestation was caused by the energy demand of Europeans during the winter months. The average New England family burned 20-30 cord of wood during winter. This is a pile of wood roughly 4' wide by 4' high by 300' long. It is no wonder that New England and many other New World forests were severely depleted within 150 years of European arrival. There were indeed many ecological results of this thorough deforestation, the greatest of these was to limit and splinter the habitats of many species. Also without the shade of a forest canopy summer temperatures reached much higher, on average 11 degrees Fahrenheit. (Cronon 1983) The combination of splintering habitats and increasing the average yearly temperature had negative affects on many of the ground dwelling species of New England.
One consequence of special interest to the colonists was that deforestation probably led to an increase in disease. Forests lose a great deal of water through transpiration from trees. Without trees to soak up rainwater there is an increase in runoff on the forest floor. As with most land uses there are always unintended consequences, and this situation is no different. The increased runoff that resulted from this deforestation led to the pooling of water in low areas, and a proportional increase in mosquito populations. The increase in mosquito population could be one of the major causes of the frequent fevers and other sicknesses that colonists commonly complained of. So as is often the case with ecological changes caused by humans, the unintended consequences can have very detrimental effects on the people who cause them.
When approaching this topic with students it is important to have them empathize with the colonists. See if they can come up with the different uses for trees that the colonists may have had. These could include building construction, ship building, especially their masts, fencing material for livestock, and of course heating fuel. It is important to describe that the colonists did not realize that forests were exhaustible. In comparison to the Europe they had left the bountiful forests of the Americas seemed endless. A comparison could be made with colonists of yesteryear and the motorists of today. While colonists used wood, and drivers today use petroleum, both heavily relied on a natural resource that seemed inexhaustible, and that was readily available. It is important not to make colonists out to be ecological demons bent on destruction of natural resources, but to show why they may have chosen the land uses that they did. This will help later in the unit when students are asked to analyze modern land uses and evaluate them in terms of their whether or not they are ethical, fair, and necessary.
Disease and its consequences in the New World (Guns, Germs, and Steel)
While Europeans held a technological advantage over Native Americans in the kinds of weapons and tools they possessed, the greatest killer of Native Americans was by far the diseases which Europeans brought with them to the New World. There have been many explanations as to why Europeans carried so many diseases that Native Americans had never encountered but the most current explanation is articulated in the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. This book is not only very interesting to read, but it is an invaluable source for Social Studies teachers seeking to increase their knowledge of human social evolution. Diamond's goal in writing this book is to explain why some cultures eventually triumphed over others as opposed to vice versa. Two of the reasons have to do with technology. The advantage of guns is relatively obvious and requires little explanation. Steel refers to a society's ability to craft tools that give them a competitive advantage. With germs, Diamond argues that societies with better resistance or immunity to communicable diseases have a better chance at survival. In ecological terms we call the ability to survive and reproduce fitness. Thus, some societies are either more or less fit depending upon how well their bodies can fight germs. The question that begs to be asked is, "What made European society so much more fit than Native populations around the world?"
In addition to this Diamond argues that there is a great deal of evidence linking disease transmission rates with a person's proximity to livestock. Evidence indicates that societies with domesticated animals were much more disease resistant than those without livestock. The argument goes that most of the diseases that have plagued mankind for millennia originally were transmitted to humans from domesticated animals. The increased immunity that Europeans had to diseases like smallpox and measles came from thousands of years of living side by side with these animals. This is important because without immunity to easily communicable diseases Native societies stood little chance of surviving when Europeans arrived. Single epidemics of smallpox could wipe out more fifty percent of an area's indigenous population. (Crosby 1986) As Native American populations experienced wave after wave of epidemics their population was eventually reduced between eighty and ninety percent. All told in the between 1600 and 1675 the Native American population of New England fell from about 70,000 to less than 12,000 individuals. (Cronon 1983)
Besides the visceral horror that an epidemic such as this might evoke, it is important for students to understand the social effects that an epidemic such as this can have. Native society broke down in the face of these epidemics. Villages were abandoned and planting cycles were missed leading to famine. Connections could be made to the AIDS epidemics of sub-Saharan Africa, or to the Asiatic Bird Flu outbreaks in Southeast Asia to draw attention to the plight of people in that part of the world, and to show a modern connection to the curriculum. Society cannot function in the face of an epidemic with 80-90% mortality rates. A game designed to illustrate this will be implemented during this unit, to help students realize the power that epidemic diseases have played in human development.
Differences in Native American and European Values
With the death of so many Native Americans from disease, and the inferiority of their weapon systems, it should come as little surprise that Europeans were able to push the Native aside with few problems during the colonial era. Desire for open land, ever scarcer resources, and profit inevitably drew Europeans further and further away from the coastline and into contact with more Natives. Besides the sense of racial superiority that most Europeans felt, there was also a sense among European settlers that God had given them the right to take the land of North America. They felt that if the Native Americans chose not to improve the land that they had the god given right to change the land as they saw fit. Native Americans and Europeans not only had very different thought about ownership and property, but they also have very different ideas on who was entitled to what.
Property & Ownership
One of the Native customs that truly astounded arriving Europeans was their system of property ownership. Native Americans generally had few desires for material possessions. The semi-nomadic lifestyle of New England Native Americans made having few possessions a necessity. When you have to frequently carry everything you own, you value mobility and weight over accumulation. As a result most New England and Great Plains Native Americans had few possessions that could not be quickly replaced. Furthermore there was a communal sense of ownership to many things that European settlers did not understand. This is symbolized by the lack of fences and official boundaries in the Native American cultures of New England. Land was not bought or sold, it was held as a common commodity that all in a tribe had a steak in. In many native cultures, if you worked part of the land by hunting or farming it, then you were entitled to share in the bounty it produced. The difference in property rights in Native American culture and our own may be an interesting point of discussion for students to examine. Ask students to examine which system is fairer? What would be the disadvantages of a system like that? What is better or worse about our own system where individuals own property? This system obviously caused confusion when bargains were struck between Native Americans and Europeans. Europeans would often consider land they purchased to be exclusively theirs. This did not fit with Native American conceptions of what property was though and many conflicts arose out of this disconnect. At any rate contracts between Natives Americans and Europeans were rarely honored very long, and forced removal from lands at gun point or after conflict was a common theme in the years that followed Europeans settlement of New England and the rest of North America.
Values & Work
Immediately upon reaching New England and settling into small communities Europeans started to fence off the land they were using, and claimed ownership of the land regardless of what Natives were using the land for. This pattern repeated itself all over the New World as Europeans displaced Natives first through disease, and then through armed force. As Europeans did this, some tried to maintain that their land grab was in fact legal under their code of laws. As described before Native Americans had little that was permanent. Their villages could be easily moved, and their planting fields were used only as long as the soil produced. Large fields were not cleared and fertilized for years to keep soil productive as was done in Europe. Further alienating these two cultures, settlers arrived with a Protestant work ethic that demanded working to improve the land in ways they saw fit. To them it was their ordained duty to bring civilization to a land left virgin and untamed by its previous inhabitants. Thus many colonies had laws dictating that colonists could use Indian land as long as Indians had not made improvements on the land. This generally meant that unless Native Americans were currently living on a piece of land, that it was up for grabs by colonists. It mattered little if a piece of land was within a tribe's ancestral or historical borders as long as they had not "improved" the land. Further confusing the situation was the fact that changes brought to the land by Native Americans often mimicked natural changes. The controlled burns of forest that aided in farming and hunting looked like natural happenstance to Europeans who did not recognize these Native "improvements" to the land. So land was often stolen from Native Americans with little regard for how they had used the land in the past.
The Protestant work ethic that European settlers brought with them also skewed their view of Native American lifestyles. It was common for Native American women to do most of the farming for a community, something that struck Europeans as incredibly odd. In Europe hunting was considered more sport than necessity, and thus they viewed Native American men who hunted frequently as lazy and irresponsible. As we studied Ache hunter gatherers in our seminar I was reminded of how Native American men would lead week long hunting parties in search of game, even though the majority of a communities food was produced by farming. It was interesting to learn how people who live close to the margin of survival often value protein more than starches from foods like corn, and are often willing to expended large amounts of energy to get protein supplies. (Hill 1987)
Furthermore, according to Optimal Foraging Theory all organisms will acquire necessary nutrients by the most efficient means available to them. The necessity of both protein and carbohydrate nutrients forced decisions upon these two societies. Europeans in a sense grew their own protein supplies by keeping livestock on their farms. Had they not had such a constant protein supply, it is doubtful that they would have looked down upon Native American methods of acquiring protein. To summarize, both Native Americans and European colonists had a system that provided both carbohydrates and protein calories as efficiently as was possible in their societies. Initially Native Americans enjoyed better success than Europeans, as proven by the few accounts of starvation among Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans. Once Europeans with their beliefs in definable borders arrived, Native hunting methods were quickly made impossible by limiting the areas where they could hunt.
We also learned in our seminar that there are inherent trade offs that organisms and thus people make when deciding how to feed themselves. Europeans had the tradition of storing surplus foods for the winter months, while Native Americans did not. To Europeans who had superior shelter, and clothing that could be easily layered to keep warm in winter months, storing food and working on things besides food production made sense. To Native Americans winter was a time of regular fasting and little activity. They would survive the lean months of winter not by storing food away, but by reducing their activity levels, and thus conserving energy. Native Americans simply made the choice to limit activity and conserve energy, while Europeans focused more on conserving food supplies so they could continue working through the winter. These two different responses to abiotic factors were equally effective, but Europeans viewed the Native American response as foolish and blamed a poor work ethic on the part of the Natives as the culprit. This lack of respect for native survival strategies further led Europeans to feel justified in taking native lands and changing it to suit their needs.
To sum up, we learned in out seminar that two organisms cannot live off of the same supply of resources indefinitely. In the face of competition for resources and food supplies the more efficient resource gatherer will out harvest and dominate the other species. This has been the great motivator of evolution, change over time to adapt to new circumstances and forms of competition. In this sense Europeans and Native Americans proved to be no different. For a short while they both occupied the same habitat and competed for resources through the use of land. With the death of so many Native American to European diseases, the disrespect and disdain that Europeans had for Native traditions and borders, and the superiority of European weapons there is little doubt why Native Americans were out competed Europeans. This is not Social Darwinism, because it does not entail the allusions to racial superiority that are typically present in Social Darwinist theory, but it does speak to the fact that alien cultures will rarely coexist peacefully. It is this tendency for violence within our species that leads to power structures of dominance that are common place in human society. Students must be made to evaluate and judge these power structures by looking at how Europeans came to dominate Native American cultures.
Modern Land Uses
Because history is most useful when applied to the present students will examine modern land uses in this unit, and make judgments about them. The examples of modern land use that are mentioned here are not meant to be exclusive and any other land use could be substituted. I have tried to pick land uses that are regionally important and also controversial in some way. I want students to evaluate these land uses on whether or not they are ethical, fair, and necessary. It is important that students make judgments on these land uses as opposed to just reporting on them. Putting students in the role of decision maker will help them to understand the real world implication of what they are learning about, and will give them some ownership of their learning. Students will be asked to focus on the tradeoff between implementing the land uses and not allowing them. They will be graded on a rubric included with the assignment.
Land uses to be researched by students
1) Aquaculture (fish farming)
3) Highway construction
4) Short term insect control by pesticide spraying
5) Soy bean farming in the Amazon Rainforest
6) Damming rivers for electrical power
7) Cutting forests for lumber
8) Nuclear power plants
9) Coal Mining