First Contact in the Americas

First Contact in the Americas

How do you introduce students to the concept of “first contact” between Indigenous and European groups in the Americas? We have a timeline and handy tips.


5 - 8


Social Studies, World History

“First contact” describes an initial encounter between cultures that were previously unaware of each other. In the Americas, “first contact” almost always refers to first contact between indigenous peoples and Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In reality, of course, the Americas were populated by millions of people from thousands of culturally distinct communities. There were thousands of “first contacts” between these groups, as well as later European immigrants.

When introducing concepts surrounding first contact in the Americas, groups such as Learning for Justice and United American Indians of New England have outstanding resources to help guide your pedagogy.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:


  • How are Europeans and Native Americans identified by name in first-contact stories?
  • Why do students think Europeans are likely to be identified by individual names and nationalities?
  • Why do students think Native Americans are less likely to be identified as individuals or with their cultural community (such as Inupiat or Aztec), and more likely to be identified with groups on a continental (Native American) or global (indigenous) scale? What impact might this identification have on individuals or communities?
  • How are Europeans described in first-contact stories? Discuss words like explorer, discoverer, merchant, immigrant, missionary, sailor, colonialist, colonizer. What associations do students make with these descriptive terms? 
  • How are Native Americans described in first-contact stories? Are they described by their actions (“explorer”), status in their own society (“leader”), or by European assumptions about how that society works (“daughter of a chief”)?


  • How are Europeans and Native Americans visually represented in first-contact stories?
  • In historic images by later European artists, what are people doing? How are they dressed? What is the physical environment? 
  • How have Native American artists depicted first contact? Why do students think there might be significant differences between native and European representations of the same event?
  • Most representations of first contact were created decades, and even centuries, after the event. How do students think representations of an historic event change over time?


  • How are 21st-century identities represented in first-contact stories?
  • How are European and American nationalities integrated with earlier imperial or colonial identities? (Is Spain equated with the Spanish Empire? Mexico with the Viceroyalty of New Spain?)
  • How are contemporary indigenous identities integrated with first-contact communities sometimes dismissed as “culturally extinct”?


Concepts surrounding first contact in the Americas are especially relevant for:

For Students

Consult the “Questions” tab to encourage further inquiry into first contact in the Americas.

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National Geographic Society
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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