The last thing a teacher on vacation wants to do is learn. However, I’ll make an exception tonight.
On PBS, at 9 PM Eastern, the American Experience series will begin a 5 part miniseries entitled “We Shall Remain.” It details the story of Native American culture since European settlement, covering the early colonial wars, the War of 1812, the later Indian Wars of the 1870s, and finally at Wounded Knee–both in 1890 and in the 1973 standoff.
I’m interested in seeing this since much of my content on American history deals with the interaction with Native Americans. Teachers of history often have a difficult time with the native experience. Many of the older generation tend to focus most on European and later white American leaders, achievements and trends, relegating the Native peoples of North America to a footnote. Even worse are those who openly cast aspersions on Natives as “backward,” “primitive,” “barbarian,” or even “the losers of history.”
Yet today many educators are swinging in the exact opposite direction, which is not always beneficial. Many teachers will dwell on Native American culture ad infinitum, dragging out their curriculum to include every tribe under the sun. There are several reasons for this. Native American lore and culture, unlike most American history, is the most tactile and “hands-on”. It involves objects, art and crafting that keep children actively engaged, especially since Johnny can’t sit still for five minutes–let alone the time it takes to read the Declaration of Independence.
Also, many teachers find Native Americans to be an “easy” subject in social studies. They feel that all Native culture is crafts and art projects–thus they fulfilled their social studies requirement. Let the kids run around with feathers on their paper headbands and make totem poles out of half-pint milk cartons, since there’s no need to study anything about conflict or social structure, even written documents. Administrators fall into this trap, too: bulletin boards of tepees and wampum mean that these children “understood” and “internalized” Native American culture and values.
Lastly, Native American studies are dragged out all year out of a false sense of guilt and recompense. Many more liberal-minded colleagues have stated that focusing on Native Americans is to make up for the years of neglect and half-truths in American classrooms. Thus, Natives are studied at the exclusion of all else–including the white Europeans.
There can be no doubt that the depictions of Native Americans has changed through the decades. We can also not dispute that the Native American has been done a grave disservice by the distortions and outright lies propogated by educators in the past. However, it would also be wrong to create another myth in people’s minds: that the Native Americans lived a wonderful, Eden-like existence which was brutally crushed by whites. This depiction lacks the nuance and complexity that is American history, and it’s that nuance that makes the stories of both Europeans and Native peoples so profound.
The destruction and dispersal of Native Americans did not happen overnight. It occurred over centuries where relations between whites and natives changed and evolved. We often forget that, at least in the very beginning, Native Americans had the upper hand in early negotiations with whites, both in numbers and in geographic knowledge (firearm technology would not be a real factor until the mid-1700s). Those first groups of Europeans were small, and required an interdependence on Native peoples simply to survive.
It is when the Natives began to lose the numbers game to the Europeans–be it by immigration, disease, wars–that their story turned tragic. Yet their story is not the same across the hemisphere. It is even more tragic in the Caribbean, as geographic isolation and European encroachment caused the near-extinction of the Taino, Arawak and Carib peoples. Yet Central and South America are a different story. These areas, with the exception of the Southern Cone of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, never had the massive numbers of European colonists as in North America. Furthermore, the Native population was much larger, which is why today these areas, especially in the Andes, have a large and vocal Native population.
Yet today’s PBS special, and most of our curricula, focus on the North American story, and what a story it is. You don’t even need the Europeans for a starting point–how about the land-bridge story of the first peoples crossing from Asia some 10,000 years ago. The early foundations of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, confederacy is vital as well. This debunks the myth of Native as a savage: for at least three centuries, the tribes of northern New York State had a centralized government, a constitution, established settlements, and a tributary empire stretching from the Ohio River to present day Maine. The Cherokee, considered a “civilized” tribe, developed a written language, literature, journalism and a common government.
Even the personalities are amazing to study: Deyganawidah and Hiawatha, the founders of the Iroquois Confederacy. Powhatan, a powerful chief of the tribes along the Chesepeake. Massasoit, Squanto, Metuxet and the other Wampanoag who interacted with the English at Plymouth, for good or ill. Pontiac, Tecumseh, Red Jacket, Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Joseph Brant—the list goes on and on.
Yet its most important to remember that although we can debate the effects of the encounter between Europeans and Native peoples, we cannot dispute that it happened. Thus we must be as honest as possible with the effects as well as the events of these times. It does both sides no good to succumb to generalizations and patronizing for the sake of some nationalist ideal or even for sake of guilt or shame. We must try as hard as we can to see things the way they are, and look at them on those terms.
I hope the Neighborhood will be watching PBS tonight as I will. Tomorrow will see a review of tonight’s episode.