One of the great and tragic ironies of American history is that the original inhabitants of what became the United States were among the last groups to be granted the full rights of citizenship. President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, more than four centuries after Europeans first arrived in the western hemisphere and nearly 150 years after the birth of the United States. Article I of the United States Constitution empowered the new federal Congress to “regulate commerce” with native peoples, but nowhere were those people identified as citizens of the new nation.
What followed was a pattern of military conquest and systematic displacement of indigenous communities which some contemporary historians have described as genocidal. As the United States expanded westward across the Appalachians and the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains and the Far West, the influx of new settlers encroached upon historic tribal lands. Homesteading, the discovery of gold and silver, buffalo hunting, and the construction of the transcontinental railroad all contributed to the decimation of native communities. Smallpox, influenza, cholera, and typhus took their toll. Those tribes who did not move out of the way willingly were forced to do so by the army.
Racist stereotypes labeled Native Americans as “savage” and “uncivilized” and led to their children being taken from them and placed in segregated “Indian Industrial Schools.” Children who continued to speak their indigenous languages were severely punished. Many Christian missionaries sought to suppress native religious beliefs and practices. The long history of wars and broken treaties ended with the imposition of a network of federal reservations where the remaining tribes were confined to remote, desolate locations.
Today there are 326 reservations managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior in which many of the 562 recognized American Indian nations reside. Four Native Americans currently serve in the United States Congress, including Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico, the first women of indigenous tribal ancestry to represent their respective states. Yet native communities still struggle for survival. While sovereign Indian nations enjoy a degree of self-government and their members hold dual citizenship, many historic tribal identities and languages have disappeared, and the reservations continue to suffer from high rates of poverty, addiction, crime, unemployment, clinical depression, suicide, and despair.
Concern over these crises and other long-standing grievances led tribal leaders to add their voices to the growing struggle for civil rights. Like other minorities, Native Americans fought bravely in World War II and returned home with expectations of increased economic opportunity, political representation, and equal treatment under the law. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed in Minneapolis in 1968 to address issues of poverty and police brutality in urban native communities. The movement later expanded to include campaigns to preserve indigenous languages, land and water rights, cultural practices, and religious beliefs, as well as efforts to end the use of stereotyped images as athletic mascots.
An inter-tribal takeover of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay from November 1969 to June 1971 attracted national media coverage, as did the occupation of the 1890 battlefield at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973. AIM activist Leonard Peltier was imprisoned for the shooting of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975 and became a cause celebre for native groups convinced of his innocence. More than 2,000 native people and their allies participated in the “Longest Walk” from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. in 1978 to protest the infringement of native land and water rights and the sanctity of historic burial grounds. Recent high-profile protests over a proposed oil pipeline through Lakota communities in South Dakota and a new observatory on Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea are painful reminders that those rights remain under threat.
In response to years of lobbying by tribal advocates, President George H. W. Bush declared November to be Native American Indian Heritage Month on August 3, 1990. Native objections to mainstream holiday portrayals of the first “Thanksgiving” and the celebration of Columbus’s “discovery of America” led many chiefs and educators to push for a more balanced view of history and cultural traditions. Some communities chose to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, beginning with the state of South Dakota in 1990 and continuing with the California cities of Berkeley in 1992 and Santa Cruz in 1994.
Native American cultures yield a rich array of curriculum materials for your students. From the turquoise and silver jewelry of the Navajo and Pueblo to the sacred dances of the Kiowa and the Cheyenne, a focus on the visual and performing arts can provide lively ways of introducing the class to indigenous traditions. The Cherokee alphabet created by Chief Sequoyah (1770-1843) can be a good starting point for written activities. So can the traumatic experience of the five southeastern “Civilized Nations” on the Trail of Tears (1838-1839). Native American religious beliefs form another body of interesting ideas for lesson development.
Authors Dee Brown (1908-2002) and Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005) wrote classic nonfiction works on Native American history and culture. Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has never gone out of print since it was first published in 1970 and has been translated into 17 languages worldwide. An award-winning film adaptation appeared on HBO in 2007. Deloria’s Custer Died For Your Sins (1969) and God is Red (1972) became part of the curriculum of burgeoning Native American Studies programs on college campuses across the country.
Popular fashion and media began to focus on a revival of American Indian music, language, and dance in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The growing environmental movement also took an interest in indigenous beliefs in the wake of the first Earth Day celebrations. Tribal groups began making their voices heard and asserting their right to occupy their historic lands and celebrate their cultures without restriction. Inter-tribal powwows have multiplied in the years since then and many are now open to the public. I attended a large one in Wichita, Kansas in 1992 hosted by the Mid-America All-Indian Center during my fifteen months on the Great Plains.
Biographies of prominent figures such as war chiefs Sitting Bull (1831-1890) and Geronimo (1829-1909), World War II hero Ira Hayes (1923-1955) and the Navajo “Code Talkers,” AIM leaders Dennis Banks (1937-2017) and Russell Means (1939-2012), Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010), and folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie can form the basis of interesting and rewarding student projects. So can regional cultural profiles and the more recent cooperation between indigenous peoples from around the world on important environmental and political issues.
Other worthwhile lesson plans may include a critical examination of the portrayal of Native Americans in popular media, from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to television programs and movies. Controversy over the use of names like “Indians,” “Redskins,” “Braves,” and “Warriors” as sports mascots continues to the present day. A chronological or thematic study of the so-called “Indian Wars” can tie in map activities as well as essays and visual display projects. From the colonial struggles of the 18th century to the Civil War and western campaigns of the 19th and the World Wars of the 20th, Native Americans have participated in every important chapter in American military history.
The iconic drawings of George Catlin (1796-1872) and photographs of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) as well as the poetry and essays of Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday are great sources for projects and discussion in class. So is the music of Navajo flutist R. Carlos Nakai, who has performed all over the world and has many of his recordings preserved in the Library of Congress. The recent documentary film Rumble highlighted the contribution of Native American musicians to the history of rock and other forms of contemporary popular music.
Native Americans number around three million people today and live in every state of the Union. An emphasis on the rich diversity of their cultural traditions must be a part of any lesson plan design. Historic indigenous concerns over stewardship of the earth and its natural resources are especially timely in light of current debates over climate change and other environmental crises. These issues have moved beyond national borders to include the global community. Your students are a vital part of that community. Do what you can to get them involved. Native American studies is a helpful place to start.
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