Where are the voices of indigenous peoples in the Thanksgiving story?

What’s missing in the telling of this history? Painting image via www.shutterstock.com

Thanksgiving is an important time, when schools teach the story of who we are and where we come from as a nation.

My own students have told me about the Thanksgiving story they learned in school, which focused solely on the survival of the Pilgrims and the friendly meal shared with “Indians.”

In my research and experience as a teacher educator, I have found social studies curricular materials (textbooks and state standards) routinely place indigenous peoples in a troubling narrative that promotes “Manifest Destiny” – the belief that the creation of the United States and the dominance of white American culture were destined and that the costs to others, especially to indigenous peoples, were justified.

As we consider history and its place in our schools, it is important to ask: how do state-mandated history standards represent indigenous peoples in social studies education? And, in this season of “Thanksgiving,” should we revise our curriculum to be more accurate and culturally relevant?

Placing indigenous peoples in the shadows of the past

From late 2011 through early 2013, social studies scholars Ryan Knowles, Greg Soden, Antonio Castro and I conducted a thorough study of state-mandated K-12 history standards across all 50 states and Washington, DC.

We analyzed the standards in two ways: 1) the percentage of standards that included content about indigenous peoples pre-1900 versus post-1900 and 2) how the standards presented the story of indigenous peoples in US history.

We found 87% of the standards placed indigenous peoples in a pre-1900 context.

In other words, these standards confined indigenous peoples to a distant past.

This pre-1900 time stamp is significant because the turn of the 20th century saw increased American military conquests of indigenous lands and peoples as the country expanded west toward the Pacific Ocean.

But the standards rarely, if ever, present these events and the loss of life and land from the perspective of indigenous peoples.

Other scholars have written about similar findings in their research.

For example, University of North Carolina-Greensboro’s Wayne Journell found that 10 states – California, Georgia, Indiana, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – conclude their coverage of indigenous cultures and histories in US history standards around the “removal policies” of the 1830s.

Removal policies, led in large part by President Andrew Jackson, forcibly moved indigenous peoples off their lands. These policies, legalized under the Indian Removal Act, opened territories to American settlers traveling west.

Our research on curriculum standards also found that while most states included the Indian Removal Act, many excluded any consideration of the consequences to indigenous peoples related to their forced removal.

Prentice Chandler, who researches race and racism in social studies education at the University of Cincinnati, articulates the problem of placing indigenous peoples in the distant past, in the following way:

The treatment of American Indians in history texts pushes them to the fringes of the story: Native Americans are seen as having cordial relations with whites, being obstacles for Manifest Destiny, and eventually succumbing to white progress, never to be discussed again, as though they never existed.

Perpetuation of stereotypes

Along with controlling when indigenous peoples are included, standards and textbooks also dictate how their experiences are told.

Historians Clifford Trafzer and Michelle Lorimer found that California social studies textbooks failed to include critical content about the kidnapping, rape, enslavement and murder of indigenous peoples during the Gold Rush era of the mid- to late-1800s.

The texts instead focused on the exciting lives of American pioneers who traveled West in search of wealth.

Native Americans are generally stereotyped and shown with feathers. Woman image via www.shutterstock.com

In yet another examination of textbooks published between 1991 and 2004, social studies scholar Tony Sanchez found that although the quantity of content related to indigenous peoples increased over time, the quality – in terms of how accurately cultures and histories are represented – is lacking.

For example, Sanchez found most descriptions of indigenous people’s clothing were stereotypical. Instead of including a variety of examples of cultural dress, the texts used generalizations, such as showing indigenous peoples wearing feathers and breechcloth.

Boarding school experiences

There are many other such glaring omissions.

My own research looked at how textbooks published between 2011 and 2013 wrote about the “boarding school era” – the period after the Civil War and into the 1900s during which the federal government used legal means to remove indigenous children from their homes.

Six of the eight textbooks I studied wrote that these education policies were peaceful reforms.

These texts presented, above all, the perspectives of white American reformers. These reformers believed boarding schools should be used to Christianize and educate indigenous children in the white American way of life.

The perspectives of indigenous peoples affected by this education policy were largely ignored. The textbooks did not include the stories of indigenous parents’ efforts to fight the removal of their children. Very few of the texts featured testimonies from indigenous children themselves – either positive or negative. There was little discussion of the lasting effects of these policies today.

Even when indigenous peoples were included in the textbooks, it was only as short, simplified sidebars or at the end of chapters.

Bringing this to Thanksgiving

Francis Rains, a scholar of Native American studies and history at Evergreen State College, and Karen Swisher, an education scholar and former president of Haskell Indian Nations University, have asked teachers to consider the following when teaching about indigenous peoples:

We believe that we should be asking what should be taught, when it should be taught, and how it should be taught. Perhaps most importantly, we should be asking, Why are we teaching about “Indians” or “Native Americans”?

My own students, all education majors, regularly talk about how they learned Thanksgiving as children. We discuss how the story many of us grew up learning in school neglects the voices and experiences of the indigenous nations whose lands were invaded by Europeans, including the Pilgrims.

The late Michael Dorris, first Chair of Native American Studies at Dartmouth, articulated the problem with Thanksgiving in this way:

If there was really a Plymouth Thanksgiving dinner, with Native Americans in attendance as either guests or hosts, then the event was rare indeed. Pilgrims generally considered Indians to be devils in disguise, and treated them as such.

This Thanksgiving, let us hear and learn the story of indigenous peoples – their past, present and future – through their voices and not through the voice of Manifest Destiny.

As Francis Rains reflected:

In social studies we have an opportunity to invite students to rethink things, to offer alternatives, even of past events, as a means of learning. As citizens of a country that prides itself on justice and democracy, we have an opportunity to help students understand the consequences of when justice and/or democracy fails.

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