Teaching Native American History with Inquiry and Empathy

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Today is 124 years since the Massacre at Wounded Knee, which left about 150 Sioux Indians dead at the hands of the U.S. government.

I’ll never forget an experience I had teaching Native American history in my AP U.S. class. While discussing the Trail of Tears and general treatment of Natives during the 19th century, a student raised his hand and said, “Native Americans were a threat to American progress and had to be eliminated.” I was a little stunned at the bluntness of this statement, the lack of empathy in the statement, and the general agreement from most of my students. I responded with something like, “Well, that’s certainly one viewpoint. Let’s talk about this.”

Native American history can at times be overly generalized in American social studies classes. Students learn about contact between Natives and Europeans and the disease and oppression that ensued. Many students know of the Trail of Tears and that Andrew Jackson was no supporter of Native American rights.

But there seems to be some traps in Native American history education:

  • Melding together all Native Americans into one culture, one monochromatic “otherness.” We oftentimes do this with Africa as well. Ignoring regional, linguistic, tribal differences. Can most students differentiate between nations or tribes in a meaningful way? Can they analyze conflicts and alliances between and among nations or tribes?
  • Do students assume the treatment of Native Americans was unfortunate, but inevitable, and no other viable options existed? If so, what can a teacher do to facilitate a more nuanced examination?
  • In my experience, many students view Natives of the past as primitive or simplistic and European-based industrial progress was inherently at odds with Native cultures. What sources can challenge these assumptions? To what extent is it a fair assumption?
  • Do students have enough exposure to Native American history content to contextualize change over time? Or do they view moments in Native history as isolated events? Is 20th and 21st century Native American history part of U.S. history courses? (See section 10.4 of Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook for Native American history as part of the rise of the New Left in the 1960’s and 1970’s.)

There are deep cultural and pedagogical roots for these beliefs and attitudes. Content standards and assessments understandably drive what we teach, and those standards and assessments may or may not have a focus on Native American history.

History textbooks for far too long were authoritative and biased, with little primary source material. Consider this section of “A Brief History of the United States,” a history textbook from 1885 by Barnes’ Historical Series:

If he had any ideas of a Supreme Being, they were vague and degraded. His dream of a Heaven was of happy hunting grounds or of gay feasts, where his dog should join in the dance. He worshiped no idols, but peopled all nature with spirits, which dwelt not only in birds, beasts, and reptiles, but also in lakes, rivers, and water-falls. As he believed these had power to help or harm men, he lived in constant fear of offending them. He apologized, therefore, to the animals he killed, and made solemn promises to fishes that their bones should be respected. He places great stress on dreams, and his camp swarmed with sorcerers and fortune-tellers. Such was the Indian two hundred years ago, and such he is today. He opposes the encroachments of the settler, and the building of the railroads. But he can not stop the tide of immigration. Unless he can be induced to give up roving habits and cultivate the soil, he is doomed to destruction. It is to be earnestly hoped that the red man may yet be Christianized, and taught the arts of industry and peace.

 

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This textbook account has no primary source material to help students corroborate this narrative. No tribal differences are presented. No attempt at empathy for the plight of Natives was made. Perhaps most glaringly, it generalizes to such an extent that the narrative is just plain false. To suggest Natives were void of peace and industry, void of any meaningful culture, unwilling and unable to form permanent or semi-permanent settlements is inaccurate.

I used this 1885 textbook account with my students for several years. I’d hand it out and ask them to read it, with really no other direction. I would not tell them the source or date. Then I’d ask for reactions. Most students took it as a legitimate source. They made observations about Native habits and the conflict with white Americans. Every year a small minority of students would question the source, remark at some of the insulting language and generalizations. But I was always surprised that this was maybe 1 or 2 students per class. I’d then reveal the source, and discuss the importance of multiple sources, revisionist history, and exploring history with a skeptical eye for the truth.

Additional sources can be used alongside this 1885 textbook account. To up the level of inquiry, students can corroborate the old textbook account with other sources. This video about the Aztecs and their capital, Tenochtitlan, can help challenge the notion that Natives were deficient in industry and engineering, and were not willing to form permanent settlements. Primary and secondary sources on the Iroquois Confederacy, such as those included in this essay by Matthew Dennis, challenge the 1885 source by presenting the political, diplomatic, and military prowess of the Iroquois Nation. This secondary reading from Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook can also help corroborate the 1885 textbook. Students can see how nature was integral to culture and behavior of the Iroquois, but with a less condescending narrative. Analyzing the Iroquois through the lens of a child is also an effective way to foster cultural empathy of students.

Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook has more resources and student tasks that help elevate instruction of Native American history.

This is only a small sample, and only exclusive to the Growing West in the 19th Century section. But having students explore multiple sources, in multiple multimedia formats, with inclusion of multiple viewpoints elevates social studies instruction. It conditions corroboration and contextualization skills. It also teaches history with more accuracy, inquiry, and empathy.

 

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