The People vs. Columbus, et al.

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 8 pages.
Role play in the form of a trial to determine who is responsible for the death of millions of Taínos on the island of Hispaniola in the late 15th century. Roles available in Spanish.

  • Time Periods: Colonization: 1492 - 1764 | Themes: Imperialism, Native American | Reading Levels: Grades 6-8, High School | Resource Types: Spanish/Bilingual, Teaching Activities (Free)

The People vs. Columbus, et al. (Teaching Activity) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History spanish_download_buttonThis role play begins with the premise that a monstrous crime was committed in the years after 1492, when perhaps as many as three million or more Taínos on the island of Hispaniola lost their lives. (Most scholars estimate the number of people on Hispaniola in 1492 at between one and three million; some estimates are lower and some much higher. By 1550, very few Taínos remained alive.)

Who—and/or what—was responsible for this slaughter? This is the question students confront here.

The lesson begins as follows:

1. In preparation for class, list the names of all the “defendants” on the board: Columbus, Columbus’ men, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Taínos, and the System of Empire.

2. Tell students that each of these defendants is charged with murder — the murder of the Taíno Indians in the years following 1492. Tell them that, in groups, students will portray the defendants and that you, the teacher, will be the prosecutor. Explain that students’ responsibility will be twofold: a) to defend themselves against the charges, and b) to explain who they think is guilty and why.

Download the Teaching Activity (PDF) to continue reading.
Download the roles in Spanish.
Download tips for adapting for the elementary classroom.

Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years (Teaching Guide) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryThe trial role play is excerpted from Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, which includes more context for the events dealt with in the trial, including “The Taínos: ‘Men of the Good,'” by José Barriero; a critical reading activity of Columbus’s diary on his first contact with Indigenous people; and an adaptation from the writings of Bartolomé de las Casas on the first Spanish priest to denounce the Spanish brutality in Hispaniola.

As can be seen from the photos below, students become very engaged during the People vs. Columbus trial. (Teacher: Julian Hipkins, 11th grade at CCPCS in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Rick Reinhard, 2012.)

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What Teachers are Saying About The People vs. Columbus, et al.

“I always begin my U.S. history course with The People vs. Columbus, et al.

It is amazing how engaged students become to not only learn the truth but also be able to defend themselves using the evidence provided. Students love creativity and this case allows students to come to their own conclusions.”
—Miroslaba “Lili” Velo, U.S. and world history teacher, Tennyson High School, Hayward, Calif.

“The students love it.”

The People vs. Columbus is the most interactive lesson that my class has ever used. The students love it and become enlightened about a perspective on history they have never heard of before.”
—Larry Johns, social studies teacher, Denman Junior High, McComb, Miss.


Students Are Inspired to Share What They Learned

Student Film Critiques Textbook Accounts and Hero Worshipping

High school student filmmakers Jared, Ana Marie, Jonah, and Mayra (not pictured) made “Columbus – The Hidden Story” for the 2011 National History Day competition.

D.C. high school teacher Julian Hipkins III used The People vs. Columbus, et al. lesson with his 11th grade U.S. history class at Capital City Public Charter School and introduced them to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Four of his students (Jared, Ana Marie, Jonah, and Mayra) were inspired to make a film called Columbus—The Real Story. Using feature film clips and interviews with school staff, the film critiques and analyzes textbook accounts of Columbus. Columbus—The Real Story was selected as a D.C. citywide entry for the 2011 National History Day competition.


This lesson was published by Rethinking Schools in Rethinking Columbus. For more lessons like “The People vs. Columbus, et al.,” order Rethinking Columbus with more than 80 essays, poems, interviews, historical vignettes, and lesson plans edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson. See Table of Contents.



Related Materials

There are 23 comments by other visitors:

  • I always begin my U.S. history course with this case. It is amazing how engaged students become to not only learn the truth but also be able to defend themselves using the evidence provided. Students love creativity and this case allows students to come to their own conclusions. Although, I must say, some of my students have become frustrated with me for not providing them the “answer” to who or what was responsible for killing the Tainos. All I tell them is there is no right answer!

    Response shared by Miroslaba Velo — August 10, 2010 @ 10:42 pm

  • Its a great activity. I conduct this simulation every year.

    Response shared by John Collier — August 11, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

  • I do research prior to this activity and we read a variety of articles on the topic of Columbus and the Taino’s, including for example, las Casas. Then students write a paragraph answering the question: Should we celebrate Columbus Day. They have to cite sources and support their reasoning. The high level of critical thinking and engagement for the trial is wonderful, as they already have set some ideas up, this activity allows them to rethink.

    Jennifer Glowacki

    Response shared by Jglowacki — November 21, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

  • The trial worked very well on Friday (1/27/2012). Students were very engaged and thoughtful. After school at our staff meeting, one of the Physics teachers shared that he had students arguing in his classroom during lunch and he was about to break them up and send them out when he realized they were talking about the Columbus Trial and who was to blame. He reflected that this was the first time all school year he has heard students really talking about class content outside of class time (even though for his class, students had to solve a murder mystery as their last lab!). I especially loved hearing the “System of the Empire” groups present their arguments and then have other students question them. To hear 9th graders thinking critically and debating how much of a person’s action reflects their individual choice vs. what society compels them to do and then applying that to major events in world history is amazing. Thanks for the resource! – Barrie Moorman, U.S. history teacher, 9th grade, Washington, D.C.

    Response shared by Barrie Moorman — January 29, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

  • I am a retired bilingual-bicultural teacher in Chicago. For 17 years I taught second grade in a gifted program at Orozco Academy, in Pilsen, mostly Mexican neighborhood in the city.
    Even before Rethinking Schools, published Rethinking Columbus, I always asked my students: “Why we don’t have classes on October 12?” There were many answers, some of them were “Es el día de Cristobal Colon” or “Es el cumleaños de Cristobal Colon” or “Es el Dia de la Raza” or “I don’t know…”
    We started the journey of finding out who was that señor Cristobal Colon, Christopher Columbus. Where was he worn, in what time did he lived, what he has to do with us, what believes people have about the world at that time, etc. We look for information,the students designed a questionnaire with 5 questions to ask their parents, or other relatives, like “Did you celebrated Columbus Day in Mexico?” “What do you know about the character” “Should be celebrate what happened in October 12, 1492?” “Was this part of the world inhabited”
    etc., etc. By the end of the lesson, the students created a picture book with 12 pages, on each page they draw something related to the “holiday” and wrote one or two sentences for each drawing, and we created a show outside the classroom with all the books. The older students and the teachers were very interested and came to ask questions to our class. They were intrigued why the young second graders decided that October 12 was not a day of celebration, but a time to commemorate the fight of indigenous people in the continent of America, since 1492 to this day, for their rights and dignity.

    Response shared by Carmen G. Aguilar — October 9, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

  • Every year on student evaluations many students point to this role play as one of their favorite projects. After the trial, it is clear that students sense of this history is completely changed. Students often question why we celebrate Columbus Day and why he is seen as a hero. Throughout the year as we move through U.S. history, students come back to the trial and talk about what happened and what they learned in relation to constitution, slavery, and manifest destiny. —Kathryn Cates, middle school social studies teacher, Portland, OR

    Response shared by Kathryn Cates — May 23, 2016 @ 12:58 pm

  • My students were completely engaged in the trial we held about the massacre of the Tainos. They loved it! They were so outraged that it’s a federal holiday that I suggested we send letters to the editors of local newspapers and our city council. They were so excited. Most of the students chose to send letters. When one of the students letters was published the next day advocating for our city to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, the students who had not sent letters immediately began to write. It was a powerful lesson in civics especially since my students are disenfranchised and feel like they don’t have power to effect change politically. —Laura Farrelly, high school social studies teacher, Eugene OR

    Response shared by Laura Farrelly — May 23, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

  • I think the People vs. Columbus et al was so effective. I taught it in a Native American Studies course and the students spent a lot of time exploring primary source documents from Columbus and Las Casas. It was powerful to watch them transform into excellent and passionate litigators, but basing their arguments upon historical evidence. Also, the power of role plays to induce empathy and compassion for various points of view was evident. My students are all Native American and they are all too familiar with the concepts of genocide and exploitation. However, many of them did not know about the Taino and were curious to learn more. At the conclusion we watched the film, Even the Rain, to enhance their understanding of the texts, and also to learn more about the Cochabamba water war to piece together an interdisciplinary unit about water that they were engaged in. —Lisa Longeteig, high school social studies teacher, Santa Fe, NM

    Response shared by Lisa Longeteig — May 23, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

  • The Christopher Columbus trial is a phenomenal lesson to use with students. First, it forces them to think about the construct of our globalized world in a new and critical manner. Americans are bred upon the unchallenged idea of superiority and equality, and it is troubling for them to have to see that the true pillars of trade, colonization, exploration, and expansion are instead rooted in forced inferiority and exploitation. This lesson further challenges students to give up the stereotypes and nostalgia surrounding Native Americans (in this case on Hispaniola) and see them as people who had functioning societies and belief systems. The most powerful aspect of the lesson, however, is the way it forces students to research, utilize primary sources, think in a debate-like manner, and justify their positions with evidence. One of my students returned to visit me last month to inform me that because of partaking in this lesson last year, he joined an online group advocating the end of Columbus Day. I was impressed to have a 10th grade student not only take a firm stand on something, but actually take action to incite change. Another of my students said that this “was the best lesson I (she) ever learned because it helped me (her) believe that there is ‘real’ history I (she) can learn from. —Sara Pierce, high school language arts/English teacher, Hollywood FL

    Response shared by Sara Pierce — May 23, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

  • We spend a significant amount of time in our SS curriculum learning about “perspective” and how perspective plays a key role in how we understand history. This trial deeply solidified the students understanding of perspective in a more concrete way. We did this trial on the days after Columbus Day and students continue to reference it when we bring “perspective” up. It’s really wonderful to see a lesson have that big of an effect on student learning while making it fun. —Chloe Hansen, middle school social studies teacher, Wellesley, MA

    Response shared by Chloe Hansen — May 23, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

  • When I do the Christopher Columbus lesson, the students are blown away. They are usually so surprised at the truth behind Columbus. They also love the role playing. This year, when I was doing the lesson, my assistant principal walked in, just as one of the students who usually sits quietly during social studies was standing up and asking a fiery round of questions to the defendants on the stand. I was so impressed with it. The lesson also gets students who I usually don’t get a lot of participation out of to debate with the students who I do. I love it! —Chris Olsen, middle school social studies teacher, Chicago, IL

    Response shared by Chris Olsen — May 23, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

  • The impact that this had on the classroom is that the students developed a sense of wonder and investigative spirit as they learned the truth about the things that they have learned all their life were incorrect. —Stefeny Anderson, high school social studies teacher, Seattle, WA

    Response shared by Stefeny Anderson — May 23, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

  • Our students were incredibly engaged in the reading and learning and had meaningful group discussions that focused on choices made by Columbus and other explorers and their impact on the world. … Overall having access to the Zinn reading and activities has encouraged my students to be excited about reading and history and show self motivated engagement and look at both the positives and negatives in history without the rose colored tint that other resources often provide for students. —Coral Edwardsen, middle school humanities teacher, Los Angeles, CA

    Response shared by Coral Edwardsen — May 23, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

  • The impact has been great. For both cases, I used the Columbus on Trial activity – one at a graduate institute and the other at a proven-risk youth organization for individuals involved with or affiliated with crime and gang activity. Both instances had the participants, ages 17 to 30, invested in the trial and who they were representing – shedding more than just a “holiday weekend (as this activity was done just after the holiday weekend).” More specifically, it opened up for a specific participant to speak about his Tainos background. The activity got a lot of love. —Nick Pelonia, Lowell, MA

    Response shared by Nick Pelonia — May 23, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

  • Maryland does not celebrate Columbus Day; so students are in school. To show the impact of Columbus voyage on indigenous people, this exercise provided an eye opener for students as well as instructors. It was done with 4 GED classes that were a various learning levels. Students were randomly selected from each class to participate in the trial and one class served as observers and writers of the exercise. Students were able to show clearly critical thinking skills that we rarely use with other learning materials. The students and instructors truly enjoyed the exercise and it was reported in our newsletter. —Verona Iriarte, GED preparation in Maryland

    Response shared by Verona Iriarte — May 23, 2016 @ 1:03 pm

  • When I used the People v. Columbus, et. al last year, the students were absolutely energized! —Grace Struiksma, middle school social studies teacher, Draper, UT

    Response shared by Grace Struiksma — May 23, 2016 @ 1:03 pm

  • The impact from “The People v. Columbus et al” resource is multifaceted. The level of engagement and rigor that this activity can bring about in my students is unmatched by other activities for studying the time period during which Europeans first began to arrive to the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. I believe that the way in which ZEP pushes students to understand history through a critical lens has made my classroom more engaging, more rigorous, and has prepared my students to be the types of citizens this world desperately needs. —Jose Valenzuela, middle school social studies teacher, Boston, MA

    Response shared by Jose Valenzuela — May 23, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

  • My first class graduated this past June and in conversations with them they always tell me how much they enjoyed Social Studies, and will never forget Columbus and how much fun they had learning the truth. Thank you for providing us with such incredible resources over the years. —Ian Godfrey, middle school social studies teacher, Stillwater, NY

    Response shared by Ian Godfrey — May 23, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

  • I used the Christopher Columbus mock trial this year. My son (a senior in high school), was at my school that day to volunteer after school. He came into my last class of the day and observed the lesson. He said, “Now I know why all my friends loved your class. That was awesome.” —Jeri Shaffer, middle school social studies teacher, Cantonment, FL

    Response shared by Jeri Shaffer — May 23, 2016 @ 1:05 pm

  • I have used the Columbus Trial lesson from the ZEP website, and it went fantastically well. I teach high school Spanish, and this lesson completely changed their outlook on 1) Who Columbus actually was and 2) What we as Americans value as a society. I saw their critical thinking skills broaden before my eyes, and the lesson was so easy to maneuver for me! Plus, the Spanish version of “Los cargos” made it that much easier to differentiate the lessons. Now that they understand the beginning of Europeans in the New World, we’ll continue through the study of Latin American history throughout the next two years. I felt it important that they understand where much of the ill will started in this history, and between Columbus and Pizarro, I now believe that they have a good grasp of that.

    Thanks for your help in making this an AWESOME unit! —Madelynne Brazile, high school Spanish teacher, Florida

    Response shared by Madelynne Brazile — May 23, 2016 @ 1:05 pm

  • The Columbus v. the People et al. lesson was transformative in my classroom. —Mia Drabick, high school social studies teacher, Durham, NC

    Response shared by Mia Drabick — May 23, 2016 @ 1:06 pm

  • What America has done to our Shawnee and Delaware People is yet an obscenity and good reason for Christians to repent before they go to hell after the karma of their reincarnations of becoming the people they hated and extirpated -In fact I only half exist since I’m half extinct with Savage Envy.

    Response shared by Negonesekagagapawe — August 30, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

  • Has anyone successfully done this project with Middle Schoolers? What suggestions would you give to adapt it to their age?

    Response shared by Sarah Zitterman — September 26, 2016 @ 11:59 am

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