Sunday, October 9, 2016

Using “Columbus Day” to Teach American Indian Activism and Resistance Today

Above: Who is a hero? Columbus (from a painting in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda-notice the depiction on the right of the Native people) and Lakota Chief Sitting Bull

Across the United States, there has been a growing movement to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, including in the states of South Dakota (which celebrates Native Americans' Day) and Vermont, and the cities of Berkeley, Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis, Anchorage, Cambridge, Portland, among others. I teach in Massachusetts, where Indigenous people first held the National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving 1970 to protest the genocide, land theft, and cultural destruction of Native peoples (which continues to be held here each year). While some dismiss these movements as "political correctness," I argue that they instead challenge all of us to critically evaluate the impact of Columbus' voyage on the Americas and its first nations (for more on this, perhaps no one has expressed it better than Wamsutta Frank B. James in his Suppressed Thanksgiving Speech). In the spirit of Indigenous Peoples' Day, I begin this post with two anecdotes from my teaching, followed by ways that we can use the Columbus Day holiday to teach modern day American Indian activism and resistance.

Almost ten years ago, when I was a high school social studies teacher, I was teaching about the westward expansion of Whites (perhaps better described as an invasion from the east) in my U.S. history class. The students were learning about forced reservations, the Dawes Act, and Indian boarding schools (including the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School). A student raised her hand and asked, "Why are there no longer Indians in America?" I paused for a second, and just before I began to speak, a classmate of hers said, "There are still Indians. My dad is a member of the Wampanoag."

More recently, I was teaching a history methods course to future social studies teachers (many of whom are earning or have earned bachelor degrees in history). My students were participating in a lesson where we critically evaluate chapters on the "Closing the Frontier," which are typical in U.S. history textbooks. I then introduced an activity that they could use with their students to rewrite the textbook. At the conclusion of the activity, I told my students about the time that one of my students asked why there were no longer Indians in the United States and her classmate's response. I then asked students where in the U.S. history curriculum they stopped learning about Indigenous people. Most responded that it ended with the Battle of Wounded Knee (what is most appropriately called the Wounded Knee Massacre). I then asked how many students had heard of the American Indian Movement, the Occupation of Alcatraz, the protests at Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower II, the Second Battle at Wounded Knee, or the Longest March. Very few hands went up.

The problem is that we teach American Indian history in a way that makes non-Indigenous students think Indigenous people ceased to exist after 1890 (the date of the Wounded Knee Massacre). As social studies teachers, we need to re-position American Indians as modern day activists and resistors. We need to use culturally sustaining pedagogy (for what that may look like in a Native context, see here) and we need to bring the teaching of Native history into the 20th and 21st centuries.

Below are five ways that teachers can use this week to highlight present day Indigenous activism and resistance. They position Native people as freedom fighters, rather than victims, and highlight the important present day contributions of the first people.

1. Native Voters and the 2016 Election

Above: A Bernie Sanders campaign event at the Meskwaki Nation Settlement near Tama, Iowa.

Several news outlets have highlighted that with new swing states emerging in the 2016 election (i.e. Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Iowa), that Native voters may receive more attention from the presidential candidates. NPR recently ran this story about politics among members of the Navajo nation. In the primaries, Bernie Sanders campaigned on numerous reservations. Teachers should consider using stories like these to help students learn what issues are most important for American Indians living on and off (only 22% of American Indians/Native Alaskans live on reservations, with 60% living in metropolitan areas) the reservation today.

2. Indian Mascots Protests 

Above and Below: Images from recent Indian mascot protests in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. and a political cartoon on the topic.

Over the past decades, there have been several attempts to get professional, collegiate, and high school sports teams to stop using Indians as their mascots. This includes campaigns against the Cleveland Indians Washington Redskins, and Atlanta Braves, who may have the most offensive logos, names, and chants (i.e. the tomahawk chop) of any sports teams (take a look at this video of a dispute between a fan and protester that made national news or this comedic commentary from the Daily Show). In 2005, the NCAA, which governs collegiate sports issued a policy banning offensive nicknames with particular concern for Native American mascots. However, professional sports leagues and many statewide high school athletic associations have not adopted similar policies. For instance, here in Massachusetts, 40 high schools still have Indian mascots. Teachers should consider using the Indian mascot controversies, as a way to help students critically evaluate depictions of Native people in the media. While sports teams may be a starting point, the best lessons would also examine the depiction of Native culture and people in consumer products and Hollywood films.

3. Dakota Access Pipeline Protests

Above and Below: Images from the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests

The recent Dakota Access Pipeline Protests have joined American Indian and environmental activists. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been involved in a legal battle with the company building a crude oil pipeline near their reservation. Thousands of Native people have come from across the country to support the protest, which is attempting to prevent the disturbance of burial grounds and prevent the pollution of the reservation's water sources. Teachers should consider using this current events issue to teach not only about Indian land rights, the history of the U.S. government breaking treaties with Native people, but also the taking of land for government use via eminent domain.

4. Politically Conscious Native Hip Hop 

Above: Hip hop artist Tall Paul

While hip hop has its roots in African American culture, in many ways it transcends race and has become a global music phenomenon. Moreover, hip hop has long been a medium to express political arguments. There are numerous Native hip hop artists who are using politically conscious lyrics to raise awareness of complex social issues faced by Indigenous people. Teachers should consider using Native hip hop to teach students about important issues on and off the reservation, including the preservation of Native languages, drug and alcohol abuse, and youth violence. Here are my five favorite artists:

Tall Paul (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe)
Prayers in a Song: 

Naát'áaníí Nez Means (Navajo and Oglala Lakota)
The Radical:

Frank Waln (Sicangu Lakota)

Drezus (Plains Cree)

Supaman (Apsaalooke Crow)

5. Pow Wows
Above and Below: The Mashpee Wamponoag Pow Wow, held every July in Falmouth, Massachusetts; The Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

Pow wows have deep cultural importance within many Native communities. They are spaces for Indigenous people to honor their culture through a social gathering of dance and music. They often involve hundreds or even thousands of dancers, drummers, and singers (for more, the University of Washington offers a pow wow primer here). In Massachusetts, one of the largest is the Mashpee Wampanoag Pow Wow on Fourth of July weekend. The Gathering of Nations is the largest pow wow nationwide, with thousands of people attending each April in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Teachers should consider introducing students to the modern pow wow to help students unfamiliar with Indigenous culture see an important way that American Indians are preserving and teaching their Native heritage to the next generations, which may also help non-Native students draw comparisons between this cultural celebration and some of their own.

While teaching cultural traditions, like the pow wow, it is especially important that social studies teachers acknowledge the diversity of the Native people of the Americas. American Indians, Native Hawaiians, and Native Alaskans come from over 500 different nations with diverse languages and cultures. Imagine teaching about European historical events, such as the French Revolution or World War II, and only using "Europeans" to describe the people involved. Teaching Native people as monolithic is tantamount to that, removing important distinctions, including histories and cultural differences, between this continent's Indigenous peoples.

For more teaching resources on American Indian history, check out the PBS American Experience documentary and companion website: We Shall Remain

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