Most Students Have No Clue What Accurate Native American History Looks Like

I usually read the Huffingpost in the same vein that I used to read National Lampoon or the National Enquirer. Occasionally something really catches my eye. This is one such thing.  By the way, October 9th was Leif Erickson Day. Think about it.                                                        deadhead1155

“They’re re-learning history. When we talk about Thanksgiving — they’re wrestling with these stories that they grew up with.”

JON SCHULTE VIA GETTY IMAGES

While schools take time off to celebrate Thanksgiving — a holiday based on the supposed friendly relations between the Pilgrims and Mashpee Wampanoag Native American tribe — they often fail to teach students about the hundreds of years of damage Americans inflicted on Native cultures. 

Most K-12 textbooks gloss over or ignore some of the more tragic aspects of Native American history, according to research from Penn State Altoona professor Sarah Shear. Shear, who studies how state curriculum standards and textbooks explain Native American history, most recently found that textbooks do a poor job covering indigenous education policies and Native American boarding schools.

Shear looked at eight recently published K-12 textbooks to reach her conclusion. She found that the textbooks presented “Indigenous Education and the creation of boarding schools as a peaceful end to conflicts between Indigenous nations and the U.S. government.” In truth, children were put in Native American boarding schools after being forcibly removed from their homes and family. These schools — which were hotbeds for disease, abuse and neglect — sought to rid Native children of their cultural connections.

<span class='image-component__caption' itemprop="caption">A 1901 classroom at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, a Native American boarding school.  (Photo by Francis Benjamin Johnston/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)</span>BUYENLARGE VIA GETTY IMAGESA 1901 classroom at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, a Native American boarding school.  (Photo by Francis Benjamin Johnston/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

“When the Indigenous education policies were included in textbooks — many did not include this at all — the narratives were still within that very carefully worded master narrative, primarily around the idea that the creation of the boarding schools was ultimately a peaceful way to end these ‘Indian wars’ and this was philanthropic,” Shear told The Huffington Post. 

 “It is difficult, given the evidence, to see the implementation of Indigenous education policies in the United States as anything less than cultural genocide,” Shear wrote in her chapter for the book Doing Race in Social Studies: Critical Perspectives.

Shear calls on classroom educators to find other resources to illuminate and teach this misrepresented part of history.

Shear, who teaches social studies education, previously conducted research that looked at the academic curriculum history standards for all 50 states to see how they covered Native American history. She found that most states failed to cover Native American history in a post-1900 context. Thus, it does not surprise her when students come into her classroom with little knowledge of accurate Native American history.

“My students come into class and we start talking about things and they start looking at me like, what are you talking about? They just have never heard it before,” said Shear. “They’re re-learning history. When we talk about Thanksgiving — they’re wrestling with these stories that they grew up with.”

Many of Shear’s students hope to become social studies teachers. She says they worry about what will happen in future places of employment if they stray from the typical narrative and present a more realistic version of Native American history. 

When it comes to the history of Thanksgiving, “my students expressed fear about presenting something more complex and not so sweet in a way. It’s not a feel-good story,” said Shear.

Still, Shear says there is momentum behind the idea of teaching Native American history in more complex and sensitive ways. 

“We need to keep the momentum going, but there’s certainly resistance to teaching in these culturally relevant and accurate ways. But that shouldn’t deter us from saying we need to change the way we teach Thanksgiving and Columbus day,” said Shear.

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Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation, and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? EmailRebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.

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