American Indian History and the Crisis for Secondary Education Teachers

If you know me, you know my research. Seriously, I talk about it a lot. To anyone I can. I talk about history in general. And increasingly, gopher tortoises. (But that’s beside the fact.) The point is, I’m always talking about history to anyone I can find. So it was no surprise the other day when I was approached in the locker room of my local gym about the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The guy, in his mid 50s I presume, struck up a simple conversation- “Hey, you know Indian history, right?” I told him that yes, I knew some American Indian history, but the best place for information about any particular tribe was the tribe itself. “Great,” he said. “How are those casinos working out for them? They’re doing really well, right?”

This was not a surprising query. Questions about Indian casinos and annuities are the second most popular remarks directed my way when people find out about my interests. The most popular, of course, is to tell me of their Cherokee princess great-grandmother. Always.

But this gentleman really wanted to get down to how much the Tribe got from the government. He was vested in this. “What do you think? I’ve heard $8,000 per month. Some as high as $13,000 per month.”

I told him I didn’t know. My focus was on the 17th-19th centuries so I wasn’t the best person to ask. Besides, I told him, whatever number the Tribe received was a small price to pay for Florida. After all, this was and is indigenous land. And then he hit me with it.

“But there was nothing here!”

And then I pounced. “Nothing here? There were PEOPLE here. Families. Towns. Bison, deer, panthers, and bears in numbers you would not believe. There was a Lake Okeechobee that was far larger than it is now because it hadn’t been drained for farmers. EVERYTHING was here.”

I think maybe I scared the guy a bit. That certainly wasn’t my intention. The man’s questions were innocent, but ignorant.

Five minutes later, I was reminded why.

A local middle school teacher approached me a couple of weeks ago. He told me he knew little about American Indian history or about how to teach it. I put together a few resources for him and wished him luck. He found me by the water fountain to tell me he’d been disciplined by his school administrators for “teaching too much American Indian history.” American Indians were not on the state EOC exam (the end of the year exam) and were hardly covered in the state standards. He told me what his administration told him: “American Indian history could be taught somewhere else later.”

Folks, this is especially infuriating to me. It’s been darn well established that you can’t teach US history without American Indians. Seriously, there’s an excellent book with the same name. If you’re an educator, you might want to get it. It’s really terrific.

This teacher, a new educator with little experience, is in an awkward position. He wants to teach American Indian history but he REALLY wants to keep his job. I’m different than him; I don’t intend to teach secondary education permanently. I hope to return to the college classroom once my doctorate is finished. But I certainly sympathize with him. I felt out of place offering advice. I suggested a compromise: keep his administration happy with lesson plans they like and then incorporating American Indians into his curriculum anyway. After all, American Indians are central to the American narrative. You can’t tell this story without them.

The new teacher’s story points to a disturbing conundrum among educators: balancing administrative and bureaucratic shortcomings with the desire to teach outside prescribed curricula. I speak from experience: the district’s history textbook contains a whopping 1.3 pages devoted to pre-1492 American civilizations. That’s it. (Part of this is due to Florida’s mind-numbing policy of breaking up American history courses into two parts, one in middle school, the other in 11th grade. We’ll get into this in another post later.)

District administrators are also caught in the crossfire: their funding numbers, let alone their jobs, are dependent in part upon test scores. As a result, instructors are pressured to teach the standards alone. I understand this, but I refuse to play along. Or, to put it in Colonial Spanish terms, Obedezco pero no cumplo.

Focus on these numbers commodifies young people into numbers and it sure as Hell doesn’t give them the critical reading, writing, and thinking skills that they’ll need as they go to college, vocational school, or any other journey after high school. Ultimately, I am to serve the students, not the state. It didn’t take a number to see they were learning; I could tell by the questions they were asking.

I don’t have an easy answer for the failures in teaching indigenous history at the primary and secondary levels. Well, maybe I do, but that would include higher taxes to pay for instructors with advanced degrees in their subject areas to teach courses. It would include hiring instructors who are intellectually engaged in their subject areas. But these solutions require money and political lobbying, and I am no gladiator in those arenas.

All of this brings me back to the young teacher at the gym and the lack of an American Indian curriculum. I told him I’d be happy to answer any additional questions he had about teaching American Indian history and wished him well. I hope his students will learn. It’ll be a start.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *