How to Teach Native American History: The Vexing Question of Righting History’s Wrong
How does one approach the difficult terrain of Native America and its history? To even begin the conversation for many is a struggle that is often clouded with identity politics and misconceptions about the complex relationships that shape the nature of power across the globe. I’ve often heard this question from friends and colleagues, many are teachers: “What is the appropriate term we should use in our classroom(s) when addressing indigenous people(s) of the Western hemisphere, or I mean North of Mexico?” It’s interesting that they usually don’t include Native peoples residing below the U.S. border. Another common question is, “Should we use—Native, Native American, American Indian, First Nations, Aboriginal, Indigenous, etc.?” Or, “What is the best way to incorporate Native American history and themes into course work for survey and introductory courses?”
The questions above, or some iteration of them, have been constant over the years while pursuing my formal education. They are vexing dilemmas for so many in the field of education from kindergarten through graduate school. A few years ago, stateside, before I returned to teach on the reservation, an economics professor asked me, after a few microbrews, “Can I ask you a question I’ve always wanted to ask an educated Indian—What’s your opinion on the Indian problem?” Odd question, I thought a bit intrinsically arrogant, albeit racist; but, I’ve confronted quite a few doozies; nevertheless, it demonstrates that we live in a time where many are stuck in a static mentality as depicted by the economist, while others are open to a questioning of the status quo narrative of the colorblind Nationalistic trope of America—hence, this essay. In this writing I hope to take you, the reader, on a self-reflexive journey. I want to show how teaching Native history, writing history, identity politics, tribal sovereignty, and the production of knowledge are all intertwined, and the untangling of them is largely a subjective process in deciding how to intervene.
Long fought battles following the civil rights era, coupled with identity politics, have resulted in more diverse perspectives incorporated into the written world of the Academy. As an anthropologist who is Lakota—or a Lakota Anthropologist, I equate the space of written narratives that some call “History” to a term called the “Metadiscursive space.” The metadiscursive space/History is inextricably intertwined to identity, and how someone sees the “self.” And this issue of identity is the conundrum that confronts us when addressing this topic objectively: Is there White history, Black history, Chinese history, Lakota history, or just history?
Identity is a never-ending journey to strive for a space of ontological satisfaction—we all wish to belong and be a part of something that validates who we are. Theoretically, the jargon and terminology of modernity and notions of achieving a space for “all” people, not just European/Western society, is a contemporary challenge to scholarship at large. Research has shown that an on-going struggle for American Indians is the ability to enter into the metadiscursive space of the written word. When I use the term “metadiscursive space,” I’m referring to the entire process of creating and fashioning academic writing through the organization of discourse and language through texts that document human history into the canon of Western literature.
Knowing that American Indians, like other marginalized populations, struggle to see representations of their respective cultures in writings and lessons, what, then, is a pragmatic way to teach about Native peoples of North America? If someone personally asks me “What’s your ethnicity?,” I respond with I’m a Lakota. If I’m not wishing to engage for very long, I might respond with American Indian or a Native. I grew up with Lakota relatives talking about “being Indian, speaking Indian, acting like an Indian.” In terms of policies and the federal government, I am an American Indian legally, not a Native American. Native American seems to be a more recent turn that does not denote the legal relationship of “American Indian & Alaska Native” (AI/AN). The legal status of being in the category of an AI/AN is that it affords federally recognized tribes a different status than the more self-identified terminology of “Native American.” Ultimately, it comes down to a personal choice articulated by whomever is the receiver of the terminology. So, there isn’t truly a “correct” term beyond the context and space—First Nations or aboriginal are often used in Canada. Sincerity, and attempting to frame the issue for people, is part and parcel to teaching.
The metadiscursive space could be seen as a term somewhat synonymous to “History.” For the sake of this writing, I see the two concepts in this way—both terms entail writing down narratives and documenting events of people and their relationships to the land. They involve the sequencing of time from a vantage point or perspective of the author. It brings to mind the clichéd statement, “history is written by the victors.” The cliché signifies that human beings have been in competition to control narratives of how to understand the world we live in, and why things have worked out to be the way they are now. Whether it’s the discipline of history, English literature, psychology, or political science, all formal approaches to learning have a difficult time dealing with colonialism. The quest to understand what drives human history varies for many and manifests differently in different disciplines. I asked different friends and relatives about what they think of when I say, “what comes to mind when you think of learning history?” My Black, Native, and female friends immediately stated it depends on who’s telling it—“I guess I think of who is telling me or sharing the history, and if I’m learning it from a White guy than I’m gonna say it’s a racist history.”
In the discipline of anthropology, the struggle to contend with the unequal treatment of marginalized peoples in the literature is called “The Crisis of Representation.” It refers to the acknowledgment of colonialism, and that most anthropologists built careers off of studying the “exotic other/marginalized groups,” an inherently ethical dilemma enmeshed in racism. It is one in which an anthropologist often is a white male voicing the struggles of a people without actually being a member of said group. Although the trend of only white-male anthropologists is no longer the expectation, it is still relatively difficult to enumerate the names of well-known anthropologists in the field who hail from marginalized cultures. The tangible take-away from these scuffles distil down to the following arguments: Does a person have to be a woman to write about feminism; Black to write about Blackness; disabled to write about disabilities; enrolled tribal member to write about American Indians?
It is essential that all scholars own up to the accountability necessary to bridge the gap that currently exists for so many marginalized populations. All scholars share the bounded space and rules of knowledge production in the Academy, a space globally recognized as Western. To be a scholar and to work with texts is the common thread that unites scholarship inside the Western canon of the Academy. Recognizing this basic and fundamental fact must be foregrounded in any argument about history needing to be written by someone from within the group being written about in documents.
Scholarship and its production connect to the difficulty of wanting to depict history in a more accurate fashion that allows for a truer representation of marginalized groups in the narrative. What also becomes self-evident is that living and being are distinctly different than writing something down for others to read. With regards to American Indian cultures or Native peoples, the cultural aspects of existence versus writing down something is a critical point to consider in the text one might read. Is the information correct regardless of the author’s identity? How does one know? When teachers teach lessons or require students to read, they select literature that was produced in the same fashion as other texts and are ultimately posing frames around culture(s) that were observed and attitudes witnessed for a reader to deliberate. Delivering information and discussing ideas is not bound by essentialized categories or identities. Creating texts requires a scholar to be versed in working with bodies of literature—other texts. It does not deny that the majority of literature written about marginalized groups was indeed produced by people outside of that respective group. There are often ethnic frauds who believe that their respective claims to identities bestow validity to their narratives. However, there are clear ways of examining the distinctions between a first-hand narrative and a researched, third-person text. If one is purporting to deliver a first-hand narrative of American Indian cultural existence and s/he is not a Native, then there will most likely be issues—(See e.g., Susan Taffe Reed, Rachel Dolezal, Andrea Smith, Ward Churchill). However, if one is academically trained to research and cite the bodies of work that back up the claims made, then the politics of the author’s identity should be unnecessary to the narrative.
I am reminded of a recent book titled, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. I reviewed the book and found it insightful and thought provoking on many levels. The author noted that the goals and title of the book are misleading due to the scale and complications of creating a new periodization of American history. She wrote that the standard historical division of U.S. history entails: “Colonial, Revolutionary, Jacksonian, Civil War and Reconstruction, Industrial Revolution and Gilded Age, Overseas Imperialism, Progressivism, World War I, Depression, New Deal, World War II, Cold War, and Vietnam War, followed by contemporary decades” (p. xiii). Dunbar-Ortiz’s training as a historian delves into an agenda to reframe the way traditional American history has been delivered. From her personal journey in life with American Indians she sees her version of history counter to the mainstream narrative—hence, the title of her text playing off of the late renowned Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States.
The goal of creating an Indigenous history is no different from asking someone to write a history of white people or Black people or Asian people. The complications to homogenizing a group of distinct peoples into a bounded ethnic term is impossible and an example of bad history at its best. Yet, it is interesting to note that Dunbar-Ortiz’s identity is, perhaps, not American Indian. Nevertheless, she was asked to write an Indigenous history with possible assumptions that she herself is an American Indian. The situation reminds me of a question I’ve often posed in classes about what makes Chinese food authentic. I’d relate the story of going to a Chinese food restaurant that was owned by a family from China, but the cooks were all from Mexico and Guatemala. Is the food Chinese food, or Hispanic/Latino because that’s who cooked it? Disregarding the further dissection of the heuristic, the analog is the same—does the history of a tribal group require it to be written by a tribal member of that group? The most recent approach to Lakota history written by a non-tribal member is titled, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power by Pekka Hamalainen (2019). The inside cover writes, “This first comprehensive history of the Lakota Indians and their profound role in shaping America’s history.” I have had a few Native PhDs articulate that the book isn’t very good, but they did not examine and refute the arguments of the author, and instead dismissed it as written by a “European White guy.” The text does take a different turn from the notion of mainstream history and nationalism by highlighting the impact Lakota people and culture had upon other tribes and America. And yet, the narrative is still circumscribed by the framing of Lakota as “shaping America’s history.” The larger frame of, once again, fitting the marginalized into a subset of the mainstream explanation of becoming Americans.
When I was in graduate school, I had a few Native friends who were pursuing their history PhDs. I did not know first-hand their programs, but from their stories they framed out an oppositional outlook to history and said there are two types of approaches when dealing with Native/American Indian history—a colonized and a decolonizing one. I did not feel well informed on the matter until years later having moved into the discipline of American Indian Studies where the terminology of “settler” is often used for Americans. This strategic terminology is deployed to challenge and invert the act of subverting American Indian tribal cultures into the trope of American celebratory history. Though empowering to many American Indian students, it often pushes away non-Native students who are still unsure of how global power and history have played out. Settler-colonialism is wedded to the idea of history needing to “decolonize,” and it is the accepted modus operandi of many American Indian/Native Studies departments across higher education. American Indian/Native American Studies would have problems with teaching anything regarding Columbus as fundamentally flawed. The idea that children should be taught about him as anything but a “genocidal enactor” does challenge a vision of what America would or could be down the road if brutal truths were told and not masked. It reminds me of teaching American Indian Studies at South Dakota State University and asking students what they knew about the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, telling them that the massacre resulted in the highest number of Congressional Medals of Honor awarded in American History; this, for massacring defenseless elders, women and children always shocked the predominantly non-native South Dakota and midwestern college students.
The field of American Indian studies takes a holistic approach that incorporates numerous academic fields such as history, psychology, and anthropology, to name a few. And it unifies the different disciplinary approaches, often with the common goal of furthering and supporting tribal sovereignty. The idea of sovereignty is one that respects the inherent right of tribal nations to be treated as such: sovereign. Sovereignty is about upholding the unique values and rights to one’s tribal nation and not wishing to become a melting-pot American or a minority. To many American Indians, the goals are less of an emphasis upon civil rights pursued by other minorities in America, and more of a distinct goal to reclaim treaty rights and the desire to get land back. Of the more than 570 federally recognized tribes and countless state recognized tribes, however, their respective positions, relationships, and attitudes towards mainstream America are unique and vary greatly.
Writing this piece coincides with the departure of the forty-fifth president of the United States, who will be noted in history as having attempted to deregulate and reduce the federal trust obligations of the United States to American Indian tribes—eroding tribal sovereignty’s goals of reasserting nationhood. The forty-fifth president’s choice of placing a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office soured many American Indians. Moreover, the forty-fifth president’s White House also created the 1776 Commission, partly in response to the The 1619 Project that was developed by the New York Times to reframe American history’s treatment of slavery and Black Americans. The 1619 Project was met with various responses ranging from applause to critiques of it being more ideological than historical. The 1776 Commission attempted to counter the notions that slavery and race played a critical role in the construction of the United States of America. Both projects, however, demonstrate the binary relationship and monopoly of discussions on “Race” in America as a white versus Black duality. Missing from the national stage of these two highly visible historical projects are American Indians.
Choosing additional readings to help illustrate this, alongside curriculum change for teachers, are practical methods to address structural and societal changes that are beyond the reach of an individual teacher. A wonderful book by James Loewen, The Lies my Teacher told Me, helps provide a necessary skepticism to what is found in textbooks. Coupling good alternative texts with speakers to help narrate the many angles to how history is experienced by different populations is critical. In addition to the departure of the forty-fifth president, the global pandemic has inevitably shaped and impacted education. One positive outcome is the technology of face-to-face computer platforms that afford us the ability to access, in real-time, speakers who may have been too difficult to obtain prior to the technological adjustments that are now available to zoom or facetime or hang-out.
Also try to connect and build relationships with nearby American Indian/Native American Studies programs, if one is not actually near tribal communities with knowledgeable educators. There are often times tribal historians in tribal communities who are incredible repositories of tribally specific information. Context is always key, so how is the lesson framed? Is it for Native Heritage Month? Is it a segment in an already established curriculum? So, if the issue is an immediate need versus a long-term institutional approach, each warrant different responses. Again, I would recommend making a connection to the regional tribal communities or American Indian/Native American Studies programs to work collectively on incorporating strategic plans and long-term goals. Establish an advisory board that has both native and non-native scholars and community members to provide input. Interrogate the curriculum and its originators so that you can see if it is an already homogenized corporate nationalistic agenda. The best approaches to teaching about Native history entail selecting a wide array of diverse texts that demonstrate the multitude of perspectives that exist but are usually excluded from mainstream texts, especially if one is teaching a survey course and wants to survey the landscape of the field. Again, it would be advantageous to reach out to American Indian Studies or Native American Studies programs, nearby, or regionally grounded, to collaborate on curriculum at all levels with scholars.
The strength of scholars’ work must somehow be intertwined with exploring the effects of capitalism upon collective tribal peoples’ cultural and political realities—which in turn means that a Marxist economic analysis is essential to ground the material world’s inequalities into a substantive critique. Without a critique of capitalism, the intersectionality of race, class, and culture become confusing events that seem to occur without rhyme or reason—i.e., all paths in human history have led to the current common denominator of global capitalism. Regardless of the theoretical and political implications involved in narrating human events, books such as Dunbar-Ortiz’s Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States are useful to challenge the curriculum in American public schools. They invert the nationalistic U.S. history narrative of a modern nation-state identity, or settler identity, that helps erase and supplant the ethnic and cultural sensibilities of the populations here before the colonial intrusion.
I will end this discussion with some thoughts shared with me by an instructor of U.S. history here at the tribal college who is a non-native man. He told me, jokingly, “nobody wants to hear from me, I’m just a White guy living on the reservation.” Though, joking, to a degree, we did discuss how Native people are quite capable of articulating their own dilemmas with how history is narrated and the problems with American history and its treatment of American Indians. He said, “In my opinion, the issue comes down to land and policies, and less of an emphasis on specific people like Nixon or Trump. The policies of the U.S. have always been about dispossession of tribes’ land and how to take it. These policies have shaped the relationships of tribes to the U.S. government and greater population at large. So, instead of trying to approach culture and things in some PC way that Natives can do perfectly well on their own, White guys like me need to explain the policies that were enacted to steal Native land.”
Richard Meyers is an Oglala Sioux (Lakota) tribal member living among his tiyóšpaye (extended family) in Wanblee, South Dakota and Director of Graduate Studies at Oglala Lakota College. He is the past president of the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists and a former writer and editor in Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. His research and scholarship are interdisciplinary by nature and fit well with applied anthropology and American Indian studies. Meyers’ focus has been on identity articulations through the lens of sociolinguistics; however, his work has spanned a broad gamut of topics that fall under the rubrics of Native North America, Indigenous, American Indian, Native, and ethnic. From issues involving education to sacred sites, his interests and experience are broad.
 It has been a point of friction for some regarding Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s identity as not being an enrolled tribal member. She was married to a renowned Pueblo author named Simon Ortiz and kept his last name. However, her identity as a Native woman has been challenged versus someone who claims possible descent is an issue that has been brought up in certain instances.