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Teaching Native American History in Schools
“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children” (Sitting Bull). In elementary school, many children were taught that Thanksgiving was when the pilgrims came to America, learned from the Natives, and had a meal together. Later in school students are taught about the westward expansion, but many teachers don’t talk about the massacres. It is important that students learn the truth of American history. Native American culture and history, including Thanksgiving, are often not taught well in schools, and this needs to change for many reasons.
Most of us were taught the story of Thanksgiving as kids. The pilgrims came to America on the Mayflower, had a meal where they talked and everything was good. Even though that’s what most people learn, it’s not the truth of what happened. “In fact, before reaching Plymouth, a scouting party from the Mayflower stole some corn” (Gates). The pilgrims didn’t come to America peacefully, they stole from the Natives and started fighting with them. Gates further proves the violence when saying “At least 30 Indians attacked them with yard-long arrows. One Indian was probably wounded; the whites were unscathed”. Even before reaching Plymouth, where they supposedly shared a meal, the pilgrims were being violent and stealing; this was just the start of the violence towards Natives.
There was no first Thanksgiving meal like most students are taught in school. In Tommy Orange’s book There There he explains that “Colonists invited Massasoit to a feast after a recent land deal. Massasoit came with ninety of his men. That meal is why we still eat a meal together in November” (4). The meal described as the first thanksgiving meal wasn’t intended for giving thanks, it was a meal about a land deal. “In 1637, anywhere from four to seven hundred Pequot gathered for their annual Green Corn Dance. Colonists surrounded their village, set it on fire, and shot any Pequot who tried to escape. The next day the Massachusetts Bay Colony had a feast in celebration, and the governor declared it a day of thanksgiving” (Orange 4). The first Thanksgiving wasn’t giving thanks for the Natives, it was a meal giving thanks for the colonists setting a Native village on fire. The truth of the first Thanksgiving meal was changed to sound better and be more accommodating to white people.
Not only was the story of Thanksgiving different, but other parts of Native American history were changed to be more accommodating to white Americans. For example, some of the images America uses to symbolize Native American’s have changed. “New England baby boomers recall that the Pilgrim hat on the Massachusetts Turnpike signs used to have an arrow sticking through it” (Gates). They took down the image with the arrow to make colonists seem less cruel. This might seem small, but it contributes to America making Native American history seem more friendly than it was.
When students learn about the westward expansion they don’t learn about all the details until high school. In elementary/middle school students learn about Lewis and Clark and the gold rush, but Native American history is often left out. Many battles and massacres occurred while people were moving west, and Native Americans were forced off their land. “Volunteer militia under Colonel John Chivington came to kill us-we were mostly women, children, and elders. They’d told us to fly the American flag. We flew that and a white flag too. Surrender, the white flag waved” (Orange 8). The Natives were living on their land in peace when the colonists attacked their tribes and killed them. They tried to surrender, but that was ignored. Then, after many more massacres, the Natives were forced to move to the city. “Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation,” Orange says, “But the city made us new, and we made it ours” (8). They had to find new ways to be themselves and find others like them because of what the colonists did. Students aren’t taught about the violence of the westward expansion.
It is important for young students, and teachers, to learn about other cultures besides their own. If they don’t learn about other cultures they could make assumptions, and stereotypes about that culture. It is important that people of color have representation in the classroom, so they feel less alone in their experiences. In Kansas, a study was done by Ingram Arlette about inclusive classrooms. The teachers learned about different cultures and for a week. Then they taught what they learned to their students. One of the teachers involved in the study, Valdivia-Alcala, explains that “Because of that culture, that cultural context, and the teacher understanding the cultural context can help create bridges and can help deepen a teacher’s relationship to their community” (Arlette). It not only helps the teachers understand the students, but it will help the students understand each other. Valdivia continues her point when saying, “(They) can also give a sense to children that are often marginalized that, yes, you are seen and you are valued and we can bring your culture into this classroom”. Culturally inclusive classrooms benefit the teacher and the students.
Many resources could help elementary educators teach Native American history to their students. An article was written by Emory C. Helms titled “Native American History in a Box: A New Approach to Teaching Native American Cultures” provides a 5-day lesson plan on Native American history with step-by-step instructions for elementary school students. The lessons give students a deeper understanding of Native American culture while keeping it light and fun. On the last day, the students learn about how the Europeans traded with the Natives, as well as some of the diseases the Europeans gave the Native Americans. The lesson doesn’t go too much into the history, but it gets the students talking and learning about Native Americans at a young age. Introducing the students to the culture in elementary school will help them understand the history they’ll learn in middle and high school.
Many books explain Thanksgiving to young students. For example, Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message by Chief Jake Swamp is a story told from the perspective of a mohawk chief that shows what Native Americans are thankful for. Another good children's book that describes Thanksgiving is Squanto’s Journey by Joseph Bruchac. This book follows a person of the Pokanoket tribe during the first Thanksgiving. It explains how he was confused when the pilgrims came because they were trying to take over their land. There are many books and resources for teachers to use when talking about Thanksgiving and Native American History.
In conclusion, Native American history needs to be taught in schools, so students learn about other cultures. Students of color are more comfortable, and learn more about themselves when they learn about their history. As Sitting Bull once said, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children”. Teaching children about Native American history will help them understand and not judge others therefore history is less likely to repeat itself. Children of today are our teachers of tomorrow. Hopefully, they’ll be teaching the truth.
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Orange, Tommy. There There. Emblem Editions, 2020