Discovering America

"Who Discovered America?"

Who discovered America? This song explores the complicated answer to this seemingly simple question. Long before Christopher Columbus sailed over in the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, nomadic peoples had crossed the Bering Straight during the Ice Age. These Native American tribes spread throughout North and South America. The Aztecs, Mayas and Incas in Mesoamerica formed mighty civilizations. The song is all about the early origins of the culture and country we know as America.


Wow, I just discovered America.
You didn’t discover it. We were already here.

Back before buffalo wings at Domino’s,
America was where the Buffalo roamed.
What you don’t know?
Thirty thousand years ago some dudes
Came across the Bering Strait wearing snowshoes.
Eskimos chasing woolly mammoth, Ice Age white like dandruff.
This is the range, home of the free, land of the brave.
They were nomadic, hut to hut like quarterbacks,
Hunting deer with the spear and ax.
Some tribes formed towns and they settled down,
Domesticated plants, oh they’re farming now.
Pray for rain, dancing on the Great Plains,
While mad cats with cornrows were planting maize.
In the Southwest, Anasazi built caves.
By the Great Lakes, tribes, they made blades out of copper.
Aztecs played games. Lots of Indian tribes engaged in trade.
Iroquois planting squash all up in the Northeast,
They master agriculture with the slash-and-burn technique.
There were five tribes white guys called civilized,
Because of the way their government was organized:
Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek.
Isn't it cheap? They call my Jeep a Jeep Cherokee?
What if they called my Jeep a Jeep Jew?
Imagine the outrage. What would you do?

Wow, I just discovered America.
You didn’t discover it. We were already here.
Wow, I just discovered America. (x2)
You ain’t discovered nothing. We was already here. (x2)

People are people, ain’t nobody perfect,
Indians weren’t living on some heaven on Earth tip.
Aztecs had slaves, war in war zones,
Putting holes in enemies’ domes like the ozone
Sacrificing humans at the order of Montezuma, the ruler.
Mayans knew dope astronomy too,
Had cities with markets, temples, and factories.
Incas had a vast empire by today’s Chile.

Then in the year 1492, an Italian was sent by the Spanish to find a new route to India. His name was Christopher Columbus. He was hungry for gold . . .

The Niña, the Pinta, the Santa Maria.
Boats hit the New World screaming out "arriba!"
Arawak greeted the crew, heated some stew.
They came out bearing more gifts than Saint Nick do.
Columbus like:
"Gather these slaves up quick
, lickety-split,
Let’s split back to Spain."
Exaggerate how much gold he had seen,
Came back with not three ships but seventeen.
Columbus was a sailor and an explorer,
Most of all, Columbus was an entrepreneur.

Spanish would give him 10 percent of all the slaves, gold,
Land, and spices that he claimed in their name.
Indians didn’t know about guns and greed,
After a hundred years, 90 percent were deceased.
America is freedom, I’ve been told,
But I know that it was also born of blood and gold.

Wow, I just discovered America.
You didn’t discover it. We were already here. (x2)
Wow, I just discovered America.
You ain’t discovered nothing. We was already here. (x2)

Flocab Spits Facts:
Native Americans gave us...
Lief Eriksson
America Speaks
Discussion Questions

We could look at America as a landmass: a vast continent of mountains, rivers, and plains stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The people who discovered this America were Native Americans. They inhabited this land for 25,000 years before Europeans came over on giant ships. We could also look at America as a society, a culture, and a political system. This America wasn't "discovered" by anyone. It was founded largely by ambitious Europeans who brought their capitalism, their God, their ideals, their conquering spirit, their strengths, and their weaknesses when they sailed over the seas. Then, of course, as history continued, other groups began making major contributions to form American culture. That is to say, who discovered America and who most influenced America are two different things. And this process continues.

About 120,000 years ago, the Earth fell into an ice age. Temperatures dropped, the polar ice caps grew, and ocean levels fell. Roughly 30,000 years ago, nomadic hunting groups followed giant herds of woolly mammoths across a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. These were America's first human inhabitants.

Although the name "Eskimo" is commonly used in Alaska to refer to all Inuit and Yupik people of the world, this name is sometimes considered derogatory in many other places because it was given by non-Inuit people and was said to mean "eater of raw meat."

Linguists now believe that "Eskimo" is derived from an Ojibwa word meaning "to net snowshoes."

These first Americans were nomadic: they didn't form permanent settlements or towns but instead moved whenever food ran out. Around 7,000 years ago, some tribes began to farm and settled down in permanent villages.

In the Southwest, the Anasazi tribe built elaborate caves into the face of cliffs, and these caves are still visible today. Around 3,300 years ago, tens of thousands of Anasazi mysteriously deserted their cliff dwellings en masse. Their descendants (Hopi, Zuni, and others) are now known as the Pueblo tribes.

In the Mississippi area, the Mississippi people became known as mound builders because of the large platform mounds they constructed for their temples.

In the Great Plains, the Cheyenne, Sioux, and other tribes hunted and foraged. They were largely unable to hunt the mighty buffalo until the Spanish brought horses. The tribes then produced excellent horsemen who rode the plains in large, powerful hunting groups.

Native Americans played many different sports. North American Indians invented lacrosse, and the Iroquois introduced the game to Europeans. In Mesoamerica (central and South America), Aztecs played a game called tlachtli on stone courts. The game resembles modern-day basketball and soccer, with players trying to hit a large rubber ball through a stone ring. The Aztecs also played board games that had ceremonial and religious meanings. According to some reports, the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés played a ceremonial Aztec board game with Montezuma II (the Aztec ruler) before taking him hostage.

By the time a man named Jesus was preaching to his followers in a faraway land, Native American tribes had spread out across North and South America. They had developed into numerous tribes that had their own distinct cultures, languages, religious beliefs, and ways of life.

In the North, the Eskimo and Inuit tribes developed kayaks and dogsleds to navigate the water and land. They hunted seals and whales using harpoons and used the dead animals for food, clothing, and tools.

The Iroquois developed advanced agricultural practices, including crop rotation and the slash- and-burn technique. They cultivated beans, corn, and squash, which they called "The Three Sisters."

What Europeans would eventually call the five civilized tribes lived in America's eastern woodlands. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek were considered civilized because they had government systems that were easily comprehended by Europeans and because they assimilated European culture fairly easily. In the 1700s, for example, some members of these tribes owned plantations with slaves. Because the term civilized implies that other tribes were not, this term has been abandoned. These tribes are now mostly known as the Five Tribes , not to be confused with the Five Nations of the Iroquois.

Some people dismiss Native Americans as savages , while others idealize their way of life. Saying that a certain culture is good or bad, however, is both superficial and unhelpful. It is much more useful to study the differences among cultures and people and judge them within the context of their environment.

While most tribes in North America formed relatively modest-sized towns and nomadic groups, Native Americans in Mesoamerica developed into three huge empires: the Aztec, the Maya, and the Inca.

The Aztec empire was centered in Tenochtitlán, an enormous city with 100,000 inhabitants in the center of a lake. Their society consisted of distinct social classes: nobles, peasants, and slaves.

The Aztecs also had a powerful standing army, with a core of professional warriors whose rank depended on how many prisoners of war they had captured.

The Aztec engaged in human sacrifice. At times, Aztecs sacrificed 1,000 people per day. One Aztec account, which is likely exaggerated, notes that during the construction of the great stone temple in Tenochtitlán, 84,000 people were sacrificed in four days.

Montezuma (sometimes spelled Moctezuma) was the Aztec ruler at the time the conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1519. Hernando Cortés led the conquistadors on a rampage through Mexico, destroying villages and weakening the empire. Montezuma greeted Cortés, who then took Montezuma hostage.

Mayan civilization flourished from 300-1000 C.E. Based primarily in the Yucatan Peninsula, the Mayans constructed giant temples, pyramids, palaces, and ball courts. The Mayans developed written language, studied math and astronomy, and used their astronomical measurements to create the most accurate calendar in the world at that time.

Incan civilization began in today's Peru and eventually spread north to Ecuador and south to Chile. The empire flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, expanding rapidly through military conquest and peaceful assimilation. By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived, however, the Incan empire was over-extended, and the Spanish pitted city against city until the empire was destroyed.

Christopher Columbus had an idea. Aware that the Earth was round and that travel by sea was much easier than travel by land, he wanted to find a western route from Europe to Asia. He was looking for gold and spices, and trade routes. Spain agreed to finance his trip, and on August 3, 1492, Columbus set out on an expedition that changed the world. Columbus departed from Spain with three boats: the Niña ("the little girl"), the Pinta ("the painted"), and his flagship, the Santa Maria ("the Saint Mary"). More than two months later, just as Columbus's crew was planning to mutiny and turn the ships back to Spain, a lookout spotted land. It was October 12, 2:00 A.M., and the lookout saw the moonlight reflected on white, sandy beaches. This was the New World.

This New World was not Asia (as Columbus believed), nor was it empty. Columbus had sailed to the Bahamas, and the locals swam out to greet him. These naked Arawak men and women welcomed Columbus's crew with gifts and hospitality. This is Columbus's own account of his meeting with the Arawak: "They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned . . .

They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge, and cut themselves out of ignorance." He later described the Arawak saying that, "When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone."

One of the first things Columbus did when he arrived in America was to take some of the Arawak as slaves. He figured they could lead him to gold. At the very least they would "make fine servants." This is from Columbus's own account:"As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts…they would make fine servants…with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

Columbus returned to Spain after exploring Cuba and Hispaniola. In Spain, Columbus reported to the royal court, exaggerating his findings: "Hispaniola is a miracle…fertile and beautiful…there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold…there are many spices and great mines of gold."

Columbus was an expert sailor who led an astonishingly brave expedition across the Ocean, but he wasn't sailing for science. He wanted gold.

The Spanish monarchs gave Columbus the title "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" and promised him 10 percent of the gold and spices he found for them. In this way, Columbus was a businessman.

Upon his return trip to America, Columbus and his 1,500-man crew demanded that the Taino Indians on Hispaniola bring them gold. They established a system of quotas, in which the Indians had to bring the Spanish certain amounts of gold. If they failed to meet the quota, the Spanish would cut off their hands or, in many cases, crucify them on hilltops.

The Europeans' effect on Native Americans is often glossed over in history books.

The word genocide (the planned extermination of an ethnic group) is rarely used, probably because unlike the Holocaust, the killings were not methodical.

The effect, however, was just as devastating.

A combination of greed, misunderstanding, and misplaced religious conviction led to millions of Indian deaths, but even more deadly were the diseases that Europeans brought to America. Smallpox and other diseases would eventually claim tens of millions of Indians lives. The Native American population when Columbus arrived was estimated to be around fifty million. Just one hundred years later, the Native American population was around two million.

Native Americans gave us:

  • dogsleds
  • words like squash, skunk, raccoon, and woodchuck
  • kayaks
  • The names of twenty-six U.S. states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa (the word means "this is the place"), Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico (Mexitli was an Aztec god or leader), North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas (means "friends"), Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. (Indiana is an English word meaning "land of Indians.")
  • toboggans
  • totem poles
  • tipi
  • snowshoes
  • tobacco
  • lacrosse
  • moccasins
  • root beer and more!

What about Leif Eriksson?

About 500 years before Columbus, the first "outsiders" to explore America were the Norsemen. Sailing from Iceland under the leadership of Leif Eriksson, the Norsemen explored Newfoundland in Canada and then went home.

"Endless testimonies . . . prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives . . . But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle, and destroy."

-Spanish priest Bartolomé Las Casas in book two of his History of the Indies

"Why will you take by force what you may have quietly by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war?"

-Chief Powhatan speaking to John Smith, 1607

1. Based on the song, what were some of the accomplishments made by American Indians?

2. What can you say about the way of life that American Indians developed before the explorers arrived?

3. How did life change for the American Indians after the arrival of European explorers?

4. What new information did you gain from the song?

What body of water did the first settlers have to cross in order to reach America?
The Bering Strait
What practice allowed the nomadic people to settle down and begin farming?
Domestication of plants
What crop was important to the Iroquois tribe in the Northeast?
What was the farming technique that the Iroquois mastered?
What kind of car does the rapper in the song have?
A Jeep Cherokee
Which Aztec ruler ordered the sacrifice of humans?
What science did the Mayans have an impressive handle on?
What had Christopher Columbus set out to do when he mistakenly found America?
Find a new route to India
How many ships did Columbus bring back with him on his second trip?
After a hundred years of foreign invaders in their lands, ___ percent of Native Americans were deceased.

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