During a recent session on the Dawes Act a student asked me how long American Indians had been in North America. I gave her the most honest answer I could.
I could tell this wasn’t what she was looking for. She was hoping instead for a longer diatribe speaking to Beringia, coastal routes, and kelp highways. I instead saw this as an opportunity to engage Native perspectives of belonging and endurance in North America.
“Let me ask you a different question,” I said. “Why does it matter? What difference does it make if indigenous peoples were here 10 years before Europeans or 10,000? What matters is that Native Americans were here first.”
To underscore the point, I told the students about Nanih Waiya. Nanih Waiya is an earthen mound in eastern Mississippi, probably constructed sometime around 300AD by Mississippian peoples. But what is more important to the story is that Choctaw, Chickasaw, and some Creek peoples believe that it is the site from which they emerged from the earth. From there they moved north and east, settling along the waterways of the continental Southeast.
Likewise, the Kiowa emerged from a wooden log before moving onto the Great Plains, where they competed for natural resources with other tribes. Others, such as the Anishanaabe, Haudenosaunee, Lenape, and Cherokee share in their beliefs similar origins from Turtle Island.
And this is what gets to the heart of conflicts over land and belonging in North America. People could not stand to part from the land because they were quite literally a part of the land.
When considering the conflict between indigenous peoples and European invaders, hypotheses about land bridges to Alaska become irrelevant. And I’d argue that even broaching those migration routes in the context of Euro-American imperialism undercuts the main point–Native Americans were here first, defended and continue to defend their ancestral rights to those lands because is part of their understanding of who they are.
So how do we teach Native American origins? My first suggestion is to go straight to the source. In Florida, have your students visit the websites of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. In North Carolina, perhaps the Eastern Band of Cherokee. In Minnesota, have students engage the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe or the White Earth Nation. What do they have to say about their history?
Doing so allows students to see, in part, history from Native American perspectives, witness the breadth of Native North America, and understand the continuing presence of Native peoples in the United States today. Scrapping migration routes in favor of Native traditions and truths in this context, I believe, helps students to better understand conflicts over home and lands.