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Teaching Native American History in a Polarized Age

(Cross-posted from The American Historian. For more articles on teaching, visit The American Historian online)

By Gregory Smithers.

When Pope Francis canonized the Franciscan monk Junípero Serra during his 2015 visit to the United States, he brought into the light of public debate the still precarious position of Native Americans in the collective historical consciousness of American people. The canonization of Serra, an eighteenth-century monk who used corporeal punishment to evangelize California’s indigenous peoples, exposes the ongoing historical tension between how we view the history of colonialism in the Americas and how we understand the place of Native Americans in our collective past.(1)

Native American history is rich and complex, replete with traditions thousands of years in the making; it is also a history tainted by the exploitative excesses of settler colonialism. Getting American college students to grapple with the complexities of Native American history is one of the great challenges of teaching in twenty-first-century college classrooms. Thus, while Serra’s canonization sparked controversy, it also presented college educators with an opportunity to challenge their students to rethink the place of indigenous people in American history.

The challenges involved in teaching a more nuanced Native American history are multifaceted and not confined to debate about Serra’s 2015 canonization. We live in an age of social and political polarization, an era in which some of our leaders demand a “pro-American” history curriculum for K-12 students. Ours is also a time when violence is all too commonplace in our communities, and when serious intellectual debate over historical symbols causes deep anxieties everywhere from the op-ed pages of our newspapers to college classrooms.(2) Talking about the various social, political, and environmental issues that influenced Native American histories, and the role that Europeans like Serra played in those histories, can therefore be a stressful experience for some students.

In recent years I’ve discovered that many students find Native American history a mystery; they’re curious, but a lack of historical knowledge has them feeling reticent to engage in conversation. Many of these students express disappointment about the limitations of their K-12 history education. Others bring deep-seated cultural assumptions, clichés, and racial preconceptions about Native American people with them when they arrive at university.

While cultural stereotypes about Native Americans certainly present challenges to the cultivation of a more nuanced understanding of the place of indigenous people in American history, they also offer college educators teaching opportunities. Personally, I’m quite interested in the historical preconceptions that my students bring to the study of American Indian history. At the beginning of each semester I encourage students to give me a sense of what they know about Native American people and their history. Here’s a sampling.

Several years ago a student in a class about Native Americans in the Southeast confidently informed me that “I’m related to Pocahontas and my family has the paperwork to prove it.” I never saw that documentation.

Significantly, that student is not alone. In Virginia, where I teach, students often claim descent from Pocahontas. It’s easy to be cynical about such claims, but the students who make these bold pronouncements tend to perceive the study of American Indian history in very personal terms, with many enrolling in indigenous history classes hoping to deepen not only their knowledge of Native America, but to gain a deeper understanding of themselves.

Other students express attitudes that range from the romantic to the dismissive. Some continue to perceive Native Americans as the ultimate ecologists living in “harmony” with nature. Still others give voice to divergent views about the media coverage of the “redskin” mascot controversy.(3) Students express either condemnation for what they perceive as a blatantly racist symbol, while others, often young men, offer dismissive comments about diversity, “political correctness,” and racial sensitivity. As one of my students recently put it, “I don’t see what’s so offensive about [the “redskin” mascot].”

It’s not hard to understand why students have such divergent, and occasionally offensive, perspectives. The purveyors of popular culture—from Hollywood filmmakers to professional sports franchises—continue to fall back on racial stereotypes of Native Americans, thereby naturalizing representations of indigenous people as racially different or even inferior.(4)

It is the case that doing justice to the panoply of human experiences that constitute American history requires a serious engagement with American Indian history.(5) But encouraging students to question cultural stereotypes about indigenous Americans is the most common challenge facing historians who teach Native American history at the college level. There are, however, other challenges.

For instance, I’ve lost count of the number of students who’ve graduated from public schools in Virginia and expressed frustration at how “standards of learning” rubrics and bureaucratic metrics narrowed their high school history education. From a young age, these students still learn that “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and sit through simplistic lessons about Squanto and the origins of Thanksgiving. This might count as “patriotic history,” but the dumbing down of Native American history in K–12 classrooms leaves students ill-prepared for the type of critical thinking skills needed in college classrooms and, in the long-term, imperils, rather than strengthens, American democracy.

So can college educators overcome these multifaceted challenges to teaching Native American history? I think we can. Most students are thirsting for a more inclusive history of the United States and want to grapple with the significance of an American history in which American Indians are woven into the brutal story of the nation’s settler colonial past.

Starting with misconceptions and cultural stereotypes can be a useful entry point to encourage students to think about the political (and politicized) uses of history. Engaging with the legends of Pocahontas or Squanto, for instance, makes it possible to think about how Europeans and Euroamericans have represented Native Americans in the service of nation-building propaganda.

The college classroom should also be a space where students can analyze the often-brutal aspects of American history. Take, for instance, the history of colonial warfare and disease transfer. For some time historians such as Paul Kelton have exposed the limitations of Alfred Crosby’s famous “virgin soil thesis.” In my classes, I provide students with an opportunity to read and reflect on Crosby’s famous thesis and to compare his analysis with primary sources—written and oral—of disease outbreaks among Native communities in Eastern North America. The result of such analysis is a much more complex history in which students begin to see the active ways indigenous people understood and treated illness.

While we as college educators should not shy away from the more uncomfortable facets of American history, we also need to introduce students to the strength of indigenous communities and the significance of native cultures and traditions surviving and thriving in our current century. For example, recent media interest in Native American two-spirit people opens our classrooms to original discussions about gender, sexuality, and LGBTQ studies. Alternatively, exposing our students to both primary and secondary sources about indigenous concepts of kinship enables us to underscore the enduring significance of reciprocity in native cultures in ways that contrast it with the Western intellectual tradition of individualism and capitalistic accumulation.

The challenges to teaching Native American history in college classrooms are broad ranging; they are cultural, institutional, and political in nature. But these challenges are not insurmountable. Indeed, a liberal education that views pedagogy as a means of engaging, intervening, and rethinking the place and roles of native people in American history constitutes an empowering educational experience for our students and cultivates a more open and democratic historical discourse. Such a broadening and deepening of our students’ historical perspectives about Native American history may indeed be closer than we think.

Gregory Smithers teaches Native American history at Virginia Commonwealth University. His most recent book is The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity (2015).

(1) Joshua Keating, “Why Is the Pope of the Poor Canonizing a Spanish Colonialist? Slate, September 23, 2015,

(2) Joseph Berger, “Confederate Symbols, Swastikas, and Student Sensibilities,” New York Times, July 31, 2015,

(3) Carol Spindel, Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy over American Indian Mascots (2000).

(4) Shannon Speed, “‘Pro-American’ History Textbooks Hurt Native Americans,” Huffington Post, November 21, 2014,

(5) Susan Sleeper-Smith, Juliana Barr, Jean M. O’Brien, and Nancy Shoemaker, Scott Manning Stevens eds., Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians (2015).