How to Decolonize a Lesson Plan: Methods of Re-Writing Lesson Plans to Uplift Indigenous Voice
Caitlyn (Ayoka) Wicks
When Indigenous students, such as myself, sit in a history classroom and hear teachers praise Andrew Jackson or hear that Indian Removal was a necessary act for “American Progress,” it sets a tone. One that says, just like the colonizers of old said to our ancestors: “You are not welcome here.” Not only can this feeling be attributed to racism, settler colonialism, and a general uninformed teacher populace, but it can also be attributed to the opportunity gap. Readers may be familiar with the “achievement gap,” which refers to GPA, test scores, graduation rates, college acceptance rates, and more indicators of where a student ends up, rather than where they are. The opportunity gap, instead, is the ability for students to have access to the curriculum. Access is defined not only by whether they go to school, or if they have the textbook, but rather: Does the curriculum respond to their backgrounds in ways that value who they are as human beings?
In a study done by Tiffany Lee of the University of New Mexico and Patricia Quijada Cerecer of the University of Texas at San Antonio, Navajo and Pueblo youth articulate the opportunity gap as “misperceptions, […] outright hostility, […] belittling them, being rude to them, and treating them unfairly in grading and discipline.” Navajo students articulated that they felt that their people’s history was “marginalized against U.S. History.” The students “desired and advocated that schools place more emphasis on learning their Native language and history.” Students feeling this emotional pain is unacceptable, especially when Indigenous history is such an integral part of U.S. history, and any child (regardless of race and/or Tribal enrollment) deserves a safe, equitable, and accessible learning environment. It is time for teachers to respect their Indigenous students both in the classroom and in their curriculum.
As an Indigenous woman, future social studies educator, and scholar activist, I want to show teachers how to address the opportunity gap and what it means to decolonize, or Indigenize, social studies as a discipline. I want to guide teachers on how to decolonize lesson plans, but I understand that many teachers cannot overhaul their entire curriculums due to state, district, or building/department constraints. In this piece I hope to encourage educators that not all is lost by analyzing attempts at culturally responsive teaching and correcting them. This essay will highlight what is commonly problematic in lesson plans for Native American history and then rebuild them using the Bloom-Banks Matrix and Indigenous knowledge. It will not analyze all of Native history but will focus on the Trail of Tears, Corps of Discovery, and the Civil Rights Movement, as these are all common elements of history where teachers try to show diversity and, unfortunately, often get it wrong.
In order to ethically include Native history in your classroom, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, find publicly accessible lesson plans and materials, and, if you are going to purchase materials, interrogate where their source materials come from—Are you compensating and encouraging Native knowledge production? Second, classify each lesson plan you intend to use into the Bloom-Banks Matrix and alter the lesson to reflect higher tiers of Bloom-Banks. Finally, consider whether or not the lesson plan is practicing white saviorism (trying to help Natives based on the idea that they cannot help themselves), paternalism (similar definition as white saviorism but not limited to white persons as the actor), asterisking (making Natives just a side-bar in your lessons or in textbooks rather than part of the broader history—an example of this is only talking about Natives during “Native American Heritage Month,” or “Oh yeah, Natives were there, too!”), or white washing history (prioritizing white history and participating in the erasure of Native history). These need to be avoided because they are colonialist methods that belittle the Native students in a way that reinforces the historical trauma of genocide, boarding schools, and present-day oppression.
For those unfamiliar with the Bloom-Banks Matrix, it is a grid that combines Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive learning domains and Banks’ Multicultural Infusion model, created by Dr. Donna Ford:
Quadrant 1 is low levels of both Bloom and Banks; this is the kind of asterisking mentioned above. Quadrant 2 is high on Bloom but low on Banks and perpetuates colorblindness, which is when teachers (with the best intentions) refuse to see differences among students and contend that they cannot possibly be racist; however, students will still feel the same emotions expressed by the Navajo students above. The problem with colorblindness is by not recognizing your students’ differences, you are not celebrating them, nor are you able to recognize your own microaggressions and are still excluding students.
Try to avoid these levels as a culturally responsive teacher and write lesson plans in Quadrants 3 and 4. In these quadrants, students engage in practices that make them aware of oppression, how to take steps to reduce it, empowers students who are victims of oppression, and even goes so far as to have them produce decolonial action items such as making demands of those who do have their hands on the levers of power. For students who experience oppression every day, the curriculum leaves the classroom whether the pedagogy gives them the tools to deal with it or not. Lesson plans in the upper tiers of Bloom-Banks inspire students to be more than passive recipients of both knowledge and life experiences.
Putting Lesson Plans to the Test
To begin, I’ll thoroughly dissect some Trail of Tears lesson plans because they are extremely common and can cause substantial harm. It is also an area where many teachers feel they are doing the right thing because they are showing an atrocity committed by the United States government against Natives, which defies the narrative of American Exceptionalism.
Unfortunately, almost every textbook, handout, and informative video on the subject refers to the “5 civilized Tribes” that walked the Trail of Tears: The Cherokee, the Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek. The term “civilized” is problematic and continues to perpetuate standards of “good Indians/bad Indians” and “savages” juxtaposed to “civilized” settlers. Furthermore, it is an insult to members of these five Nations to call them “civilized.”
Teachers should also avoid discussing violence against the Cherokees as one of the “five civilized tribes that walked the trail of tears” because the information is insufficient, inaccurate, and harmful. It assumes that the entirety of the Cherokee Nation walked the Trail of Tears, which completely erases cultural differences between The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Eastern Band Cherokees (now three federally recognized Tribes). It also erases those who stayed and fought the federal government to keep their homeland. Instead of focusing only on the Cherokees who left, students should also learn about what is happening to Cherokees today, their syllabary, their fights for sovereignty and recognition, or even their correct name (Tsalagi). Ignoring the current status of the Tsalagi perpetuates the “ancient Indian” myth that seeks to pigeonhole Native societies as primitive and things of the past. This makes it impossible to learn and think about the oppression faced by the Tsalagi, and every other Indigenous Nation with or without recognition, today. That is not to say it is better to ignore the violence of the past. Rather, reframe your discussion to include contemporary aspects as well.
Other common assignments on the Trail of Tears include “historical roleplay” in which students either read about various stakeholders (which could include the Indigenous Nations) and then write newspaper articles or persuasive essays about the Indian Removal Actor, or the very common but very worse example—putting students in Andrew Jackson’s shoes and having a class debate for or against removal. This is centering Native history around the actions of whites as if whites were (or are) the only motivators for Native actions. These types of assignments do not include any part where students are asked to learn about the viewpoints of Natives, to put themselves in Native’s shoes, to learn Treaty law, to learn exactly what actions Natives could have taken at the time, or to explore what would have (and did) happen to those who would have chosen to resist. This creates the “asterisking” effect as Natives are the sidebar to President Jackson’s presidency rather than central to an understanding of land and politics in the 1820s and 1830s.
In order to be more ethical in your pedagogy, there are two steps that can be made. First, incorporate Indigenous primary sources. Learning about the viewpoints of others is essential to social transformation because the letters and newspaper articles that the students are writing must be based on the perspective of non-dominant groups. The students, if non-Native, should not be writing based on their own experience, deciding how Natives would or should feel. Rather, they should let the oppressed group speak for themselves. Second, change a letter to the editor assignment to become a letter to the United States Government or one of the Federally Recognized Indigenous Nations affected by the Trail of Tears, especially if your school occupies their homelands as a direct result of Indian Removal.
Specifically, to meet the Social Action category of Bloom-Banks, students need create a plan of social action. This means that their letters to the United States government should make demands to the government to remedy or honor those lost in the Trail of Tears; whether that means through a change in state/national curriculum, reparations or another idea, depending on what students find in their research from indigenous primary sources. If the students choose to write to the Native Nations, it is extremely important that students understand that they should not be instructing Natives to take action, blaming them, or trying to be white saviors. Instead, students should ask the tribe what they can do in their community and offer specific ideas to the tribe. For example, students could petition their school to begin the practice of land acknowledgement if they haven’t already done so. They could create social outreach programs to local Indigenous communities or start a history project on the Tribes who lost access to homelands due to removal. All of these implicitly teach about the violence of Indian removal without retraumatizing Native students and community members and creates ethically, action-oriented students.
Taking a smaller dive now into Lewis and Clark lesson plans; they at worst center white men and at best misrepresent Sacajawea and the various Tribes that Lewis and Clark encountered. I’ll focus here on the latter problem, since I do not need to spend more time on the whiteness of Lewis and Clark, as to do so, is, well, centering whiteness; I want to uplift Native voices. Common assignments might be to research one of the various tribes encountered on the expedition and then produce a report. The biggest problem with this lesson plan is that students are typically presenting information about Native American tribes, but not being asked to present information from these tribes. Instead, the students would be guided by Eurocentric and ethnocentric judgements based on outsider information about the tribes. Minor improvements to this assignment include asking students to find primary sources from the tribes. But an even better improvement would be to interrogate the curriculum together—Why do we teach about Lewis and Clark? Breaking this down is crucial, because even if it’s important for students to learn about these tribes, this assignment is functionally having students go on their own “corps of discovery,” which perpetuates the narrative that Natives were something to be “discovered” in the quest for westward knowledge and consumption. And some information about these tribes may not be for non-Native consumption.
Therefore, the two easiest ways to deconstruct and decolonize the lesson plan is to start with these two elements. One, there should be a requirement for all or nearly all sources, for whatever assignment you chose, to be from Native American tribes rather than outsiders. This creates community engagements as students must reach out to tribes. That counts for social action and transformation which pushes this lesson plan into the third quadrant on Bloom-Banks matrix. Second, it should be required for discussion to start with the Native American Council and Sacajawea as core to the lesson, rather than “these two scholarly white men wanted to see the world and oh this Native woman was oh so helpful let's ignore the fact that her son was stolen from her.” This helps humanize the Native populations that are often discussed as “uncivilized,” “savage,” and “primitive.” All of these words are problematic and if teachers continue to teach Native culture as some ancient thing that was discovered and assimilated, there will never be accessible education for Native American students.
Finally, a brief discussion on a lesson for the Red Power Movement. Including the Red Power Movement in discussions of the broader civil rights movement is a good example of taking steps toward a decolonized lesson plan, because inclusion is the first, but not a final, step. Red Power is typically left out of the civil rights era curriculum. Very few students graduate high school knowing about the peaceful occupation of Alcatraz Island, the Trail of Broken Treaties, or any of the actions taken by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s that ultimately lead to an end to the Termination Era and the beginning of the Self Determination Era of Indian policy. Given that these vital historical moments are often left out of the cirriculum, I want to give advice on how to ethically include AIM into your civil rights lesson plans. First, as always, include Indigenous primary sources and a diverse perspective across tribal and gender lines. Do not just center the voices of president Richard M. Nixon; have them read The Proclamation to the Great White Father and All His People. For activities, students could reach out to Native Tribes and activists to learn about how AIM’s demands were not all met, how the Self Determination Era policies were not all successes. With this knowledge, students could create action plans for what decolonial actions they might take. Philosophical discussion about moral rights and legal rights and thinking critically about the takeover of Alcatraz would also be useful. Even a discussion about holidays, mascots, pipelines, land rights—anything to get students thinking and engaging in the struggles of today’s modern populations will signal to your Indigenous students that your classroom is a safe, educational, and ethical space.
Fighting the Good Fight
Ultimately, the decolonial project is difficult and unending. However, the only way to keep ourselves from doing a disservice to our students is to step out of our comfort zones and participate in it. It will never be perfect and improvement will always be necessary. As long as teachers are committed to making a change, students will benefit from the results. These changes can even spill outside of the classroom to make societal change real. I hope that this article has begun to provide you the tools to get started in your decolonial journey. Decolonization is for more than just Native American history (and it is also not a metaphor). Native history is more than just the three topics discussed in this paper. Students of all marginalized backgrounds require the same commitment and care. We inspire young minds. We teach and lead advocates. We have a responsibility to our students and must keep fighting the good fight.
Caitlyn/Ayoka Wicks (Tsalagi), is a United States History Ph.D. Student at Indiana University, Bloomington. Ayoka also received an MA in US History from IU in 2020, History BSED from Missouri State University in 2018, and was a classroom teacher in Missouri before coming to IU. Her research interests focus on Indigenous activism and survivance with particular focus on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Womxn, Girls, and Two-Spirit individuals.
 Lee, T. S., & Quijada Cerecer, P. D. “(Re) Claiming Native Youth Knowledge: Engaging in Socio-culturally Responsive Teaching and Relationships”, Multicultural Perspectives, Vol. 12(4), 201-202.
 Donna Ford, Multicultural Gifted Education (2011).
 While there is currently no comprehensive database or archive of Indigenous primary sources, there are many good resources in development. If you teach current events, the NoDAPL archive is a good resource, https://www.nodaplarchive.com/, along with the Sovereign Bodies Institute, https://www.sovereign-bodies.org/community-projects. For past research, I recommend the American West Database – just remember to double check if the source is an Indigenous primary source, https://www.americanwest.amdigital.co.uk/. When I taught my decolonized Trail of Tears lesson plan, I found Tsalagi primary sources from the Trail of Tears at https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/cherokee-removal-and-the-trail-of-tears, Which includes letters written from Tsalagi chiefs and their interactions with Congress.
 To learn about the Native Land that your school occupies, check out https://native-land.ca/. Then from there, you can research the tribes to figure out if they have contact information, educational offices, etc. You can even learn if they are still in the region or affected by Removal. For example, Eastern Band Tsalagi information can be found here: https://ebci.com/; while the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma can be found at https://www.cherokee.org/, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians at https://www.ukb-nsn.gov/. Indiana University, where I am working on my doctoral degrees, occupies the land and resources of the Delaware, Shawnee, Miami, and Potawatomi tribes. Information on the Treaty of St. Mary’s of 1818 that caused this removal, and the removal of other tribes in the state now called “Indiana,” can be found on the Wyandotte Tribal website here: https://www.wyandotte-nation.org/culture/treaties/treaty-of-1818-sept-17/
 History is a Weapon, ND, “Alcatraz Proclamation and Letter,” https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/alcatrazproclamationandletter.html