Teaching Native North America: A Continuing Challenge

By Christoph Strobel

Intel­lec­tu­al lega­cies of col­o­niza­tion play a pow­er­ful role in shap­ing how main­stream U.S. and glob­al soci­ety has come to see Native Amer­i­cans. Art­work from the 19th and 20th cen­turies – such as James Ear­le Fraser’s sculp­ture, “The End of the Trail” – have helped to cre­ate the image of Native Amer­i­cans on horse­back as rep­re­sen­ta­tions most asso­ci­at­ed with Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions of North Amer­i­ca. Type “Native Amer­i­can” into a search engine, and you’ll like­ly get many his­tor­i­cal images of Great Plains Indi­ans. In parts of Europe as well, the per­cep­tion of Native Amer­i­cans has been shaped in unique ways by authors like Karl May and the lat­er movies based on his books. With­out a doubt, our stu­dents’ per­cep­tions about Native Amer­i­cans are influ­enced by these fan­tasies and representations.

In order to exam­ine how sports mas­cots, seals and mot­tos as well as the noble and evil sav­age stereo­types shape the way Native Amer­i­cans are per­ceived, I like to explore images like the one men­tioned by Fras­er, the char­ac­ter of Win­netou, but also Chan­cel­lor Scholz’s recent appear­ance on Bild Live, in which one ‘jour­nal­ist’ appeared in a sil­ly-look­ing Great Plains head­dress. One of my favorite images com­bat­ting stereo­types is this one of Geronimo:

Pho­to Cred­it: “Geron­i­mo in a 1904 Loco­mo­bile Mod­el C, tak­en at the Miller broth­ers’ 101 Ranch, locat­ed south­west of Pon­ca City, Okla­homa” Pho­tog­ra­ph­er unknown.

When shown this pic­ture, stu­dents inad­ver­tent­ly assume that the per­son dri­ving the car is white, and that the oth­ers are Native Amer­i­can. Yet, it is worth­while to explore the sto­ry behind the pic­ture. Actu­al­ly, the entire group was Apache who had just attend­ed church in their Sun­day finest. The pho­tog­ra­ph­er had insist­ed that his Native Amer­i­can sub­jects dress up. The famous Geron­i­mo, who the pho­tog­ra­ph­er had real­ly want­ed to cap­ture, refused. He insist­ed, how­ev­er, that the pho­to should fea­ture his new car. So the most famous of all Apach­es, Geron­i­mo, is the only one in the pic­ture who doesn’t look stereo­typ­i­cal­ly Native. This image helps stu­dents to both explore the pow­er­ful stereo­types and the change that played an impor­tant role in Indige­nous societies.

By claim­ing that Native peo­ple suf­fer from ‘invis­i­bil­i­ty’ in the Unit­ed States, the web­site Reclaim­ing Native Truths: A Project to Dis­pel America’s Myths and Mis­con­cep­tions points out that the invis­i­bil­i­ty is rein­forced by the “lim­it­ed per­son­al expe­ri­ence and per­va­sive neg­a­tive nar­ra­tive set by oth­ers that cement stereo­types” about Native Amer­i­cans. These per­cep­tions emerge in part from the fact that “Amer­i­cans val­ue the ‘melt­ing pot’” and, as a result, “blend tribes into a homo­ge­neous cul­ture.” Thus, it is essen­tial for us as edu­ca­tors to not only under­score the tremen­dous diver­si­ty among Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions but also to bring in con­tem­po­rary images and con­tent into our teaching.

Focus­ing on the North Amer­i­can past before sus­tained Euro­pean col­o­niza­tion can be one help­ful strat­e­gy in unlearn­ing stereo­types. Native Amer­i­can his­to­ry before 1492 pro­vides a glimpse at the tra­jec­to­ries of devel­op­ment and change that char­ac­ter­ized Indige­nous soci­eties. Con­trary to pop­u­lar views about a scarce­ly pop­u­lat­ed North Amer­i­can ‘wilder­ness’, this was a world of tremen­dous com­plex­i­ty and diver­si­ty with urban areas the size of those in Europe, a preva­lence of agrar­i­an soci­eties, intri­cate land man­age­ment, and com­plex transcon­ti­nen­tal exchange net­works. Focus­ing on this ear­ly his­to­ry also under­scores that the life­ways based on hors­es and firearms in the Amer­i­can west was an Indige­nous-dri­ven adap­ta­tion spurred by Euro­pean col­o­niza­tion in the ear­ly mod­ern period.

In order to tack­le mis­per­cep­tions about Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions post 1492, we need to con­tex­tu­al­ize geno­cide, dis­pos­ses­sion, dis­ease, the his­to­ry of slav­ery, racism, and social chal­lenges. At the same time, it is cru­cial to under­score issues such as adap­ta­tion, resilience, sur­vival, per­sis­tence, and the Indige­nous strug­gle to main­tain sov­er­eign­ty. The his­to­ries of board­ing schools, fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion, and allot­ment also pro­vide pow­er­ful glimpses into the chal­lenges faced by Native North Amer­i­cans. More­over, issues such as fed­er­al and state recog­ni­tion and land claims, treaty rights, envi­ron­men­tal issues, eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al revi­tal­iza­tion, and Native Amer­i­can activism are an impor­tant part of the story.

Final­ly, I’d like to present some resources that can help our stu­dents unlearn stereo­types. An espe­cial­ly con­cise, read­able, and afford­able one-vol­ume-his­to­ry on this sub­ject is Rox­anne Dun­bar Ortiz’s An Indige­nous Peo­ples’ His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States. For a vol­ume that pro­vides use­ful strate­gies on how to inte­grate Native Amer­i­cans into your U.S. cul­ture and his­to­ry cours­es, see Susan Sleeper-Smith’s Why You Can’t Teach Unit­ed States His­to­ry With­out Amer­i­can Indi­ans. For some inter­est­ing, diverse, and short biogra­phies, see Adri­enne Keene’s Notable Native Peo­ple. Drew Hay­den Taylor’s book, Fun­ny, You Don’t Look Like One, is always an eye-open­ing read to my stu­dents. His clar­i­ty and humor help them to reflect on the com­plex issues of Indige­nous iden­ti­ty, stereo­types, and life in Canada.

Next, for a change of pace, music clips can spark inter­est in con­tem­po­rary Indige­nous cul­ture. Emma Stevens’ viral Mi’kmaq ver­sion of the Bea­t­les’ Black­bird is an impres­sive teach­ing tool.

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Although Mon­tana hip-hop artist Supa­man has recent­ly embraced anti-COVID vac­ci­na­tion mes­sages, his “Prayer Loop” mes­mer­izes stu­dents. Look­ing for some­thing more with a Rock or Pop twist, music by Rob­by Romero and Red Thun­der can serve you well. More­over, clips by Sis­ters or DJ Shub pro­vide a glimpse into the cul­tur­al vital­i­ty of North America’s Indige­nous music scene.

Final­ly, the Amer­i­can Indi­an Dig­i­tal His­to­ry Project, the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Muse­um of the Amer­i­can Indi­an, and the “Inva­sion of Amer­i­ca” are among my favorite websites.

The resources avail­able are end­less. Let’s use them to help stu­dents unlearn per­va­sive stereotypes.

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