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Honoring Indigenous Peoples in Your Lessons on Culture and Heritage

Approximately 80% of all educators in the United States identify as white, while only 2% identify as Native American. Additionally, recent studies have shown that between 80-90% of all history books published in the U.S. annually are written by authors identifying as white. The historical narrative of the U.S., and many other countries with histories of forceful colonization, has been recorded—or created—almost exclusively by colonizers and not indigenous peoples.

Luckily, recent shifts in cultural climate and awareness have helped increase indigenous representation in history and improve the accuracy of their portrayal. As an educator, there are many ways to restructure and recontextualize your lessons to stop neglecting or belittling indigenous peoples and instead honor them and their rich histories.

The Problem with "History is Written by the Victors"

Once, there was an attempt to add a broader context to historical narrative by introducing the phrase "history is written by the victors." While the idea raises a valid point about bias's ubiquity, it creates its own problem: the concept of cultural winners and losers.

Yes, it is fair to proclaim victors in battles or wars, but those conflicts have always occurred as part of a much larger web of interrelated events. Military triumphs have been aided by economic, political, and artistic triumphs and just as often been hindered by them. Teaching history in the context of winners and losers irresponsibly diminishes its true complexity. It creates the implicit idea that 'we're here now, so we must have won.'

This leads to two more insidious problems with the language of historians: the 'us vs. them' narrative and the problem with 'progress.'

Us vs. Them

Too often, history is taught as a series of oversimplified conflicts. U.S. historians, for example, have often written the U.S. as a single unit and Native Americans as another single unit, locked in a one-on-one, if one-sided, struggle. This creates a dangerous form of generalized tribalism that inevitably invokes the concepts of 'us vs. them' and' white vs. non-white.'

A better to describe the early U.S. is as an affiliation of individual communities, sharing some ideologies and disagreeing in others, at times peaceful allies and at times bitter enemies. The same holds true for Native American peoples; they were a collection of varying cultures over a vast continent, likewise sharing some ideologies and disagreeing in others, at times peaceful and at times warring.

One of the best ways to honor indigenous peoples when teaching about them is to treat each faction as its own discrete entity with its own language, culture, relationship to other indigenous factions, and relationship with U.S. territories.

Too Much "Progress"

The second problem on this theme is the sometimes too-liberal usage of the word 'progress' when describing the flow of history. Though one definition of progress means to simply continue, the other means to make better by advancement (and 'advance' itself has a similar issue). This may instill in students the idea that what follows a period is necessarily a better period.

Instead of presenting history as a progression of culture or civilization (more on that later) instead, focus on the small but substantial ebbs and flows of individual peoples and cultures. Then, the largest trends can be taught as products of smaller movements, making history more accurate and inclusive, and more accessible to the average person.

Stay Up-to-Date with the Proper Language

There is more language to watch out for as you teach, and it's important to stay up to date with changes. Moreover, it's important to teach your students to stay up to date on changes. Your job, after all, is not just to recite history, but to allow history to impact the student for the better.

Communicate to your students that language has always colored the perception of historical events themselves. For example, whether or not the incident at Wounded Knee was a battle—as was almost exclusively taught for decades—or a massacre—as is now finally becoming the default framing—will change your students' perception of the event dramatically, even if the events themselves are otherwise relayed in the exact same way.

Likewise, whether or not you use the term 'primitive' when describing certain cultures and 'sophisticated' when describing others will greatly impact learners. As will the false dichotomy between 'civilized' and 'uncivilized' cultures. These terms all create false impressions of better and worse cultures, and have long served to justify mistreatment of the 'worse' by the 'better.'

Another term to be wary of is 'prehistory' when describing human beings. Teaching dinosaurs as prehistoric is perfectly fine, but teaching that early Native Americans were prehistoric is a falsehood. Even in cultures with no surviving written histories, it is likely they kept their own records. Many earlier tribes recorded their histories through an oral tradition, and though stories do not fossilize, those peoples nonetheless postdate the invention of history.

Describing any native peoples as prehistoric without first contextualizing them within the history of history itself is not only inaccurate, it also perpetuates the false impression that history begins at European colonization, an objective untruth.

Teach Their Presence

To best honor indigenous peoples in any lesson, whether historical or not, you should stress that they are not solely defined by history. Indigenous tribes and peoples are still alive today. Despite all that they have endured, there are still millions of indigenous people in the U.S. alone, belonging to hundreds of separate tribes. There has been a pervasive and destructive trend in discussions of indigenous peoples of painting them as a "people of the past." The single best way to honor them is to ensure your students know that this isn't true.

Ask your students where a given tribe is located now. Ask them why they relocated there, and who ordered the relocation. Show them the perseverance of a tribe by using teaching resources authored by members of that tribe. Through their books, songs, poetry, and movies, allow them to teach their own history. If possible, bring in a local member of an indigenous tribe and let them speak for themselves. Above all, when you explain what heritage means, ensure your students know that all peoples are living stories, partial products of their histories, but those histories do not alone define them.

Written by Christopher Condry

Education World Contributor

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