Teaching Native Primary Sources

As detailed in a previous blogpost, “What does Native American History teach us about Early America and the United States?” every Wednesday in our History of Early Native North America class students evaluate primary sources that center Native Americans. The purpose of these primary source workshops is trifold. First, I want to introduce students to the analysis of primary sources. How historians use them: their biases, benefits, and limitations. Secondly, students without connections to Native American and Indigenous communities often maintain views that are caricatures at best of Native peoples and lifeways. Introducing students to primary sources that center Native Americans helps students to better understand worldviews that can often be foreign to them. Thirdly, focusing on primary sources that display the complexity and diversity of Native American and Indigenous peoples helps students begin to comprehend how past historians erased Native peoples from our histories or delegated them to subjective roles apart from American history.

With increased access to primary sources online by and about Native peoples, it is possible to construct a survey course that centers Native peoples and perspectives. I was aided in this endeavor by collaborative open history textbooks like the American Yawp and its accompanying American Yawp Reader, the latter being full of easily-accessible primary sources (I am one of the numerous contributors to the American Yawp). Being able to easily access primary sources that parallel the secondary readings for the course allows students to analyze sources that come up in subsequent secondary readings. Through these primary and secondary sources, students can see concrete examples of how to analyze and implement sources in their own work.

In any history survey, focusing on primary sources offers students the opportunity to see what historians actually do. How scholars apply methodologies to primary sources to discern, to the best of their abilities, what happened in the past. Once a week, students come to class prepared to ask five primary source questions of sources: Who, What, When, Where, How and Why?

Because students have not seen the sources before class, together we analyze the sources through group and paired exercises to answer the five primary source questions. For each source, finding answers to all five of these questions can prove difficult. While this exercise may seem simplistic at first, the complex nature of source analysis is often revealed once the questions become more complicated. Halfway through the current course, the How and Why questions often prove to be the most difficult. How or why was the source created? Why was it recorded? How was the source received? This allows students to see how interrogating sources in multiple mediums can offer different answers to questions and how the questions asked determine the answers. From these collective primary source workshops, students are evaluated through two short primary source analyses, in which students are asked to answer the five primary source questions and then relate the sources to each other to see what they tell us about the History of Early America and Native America. These analyses are meant to aid students in the primary source analyses that will be part of their future midterm and final.

In addition to centering students in the analyses, evaluating primary sources made by Native peoples, or that purport to retell the words and actions of Native peoples helps introduce and illuminate Native communities, cosmologies, and lifeways. Students begin to understand the commonalities and differences across Native origin stories and the complexities of Native cosmologies and cultures. Clan connections, different gender roles, and the importance of matrilineages to some groups become concepts that students carry through the course. Practices of gift-giving and reciprocity between individuals and groups help explain diplomacy and interactions between groups and with Europeans. For example, the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address helps explain Native cosmologies and the importance of social cohesion with every repetition of the phrase “now our minds are one.” By providing students with a basis in Native lifeways and then connecting the examples they have seen to secondary sources, students begin to see what was once unfamiliar as familiar. Caricatured images of Native stereotypes become diverse and complex peoples. Furthermore, by providing a base in primary sources about Native peoples before and after contact with Europeans, students begin to see the biased ways that colonial sources depicted Native peoples. The colonial gaze of Euro-centric accounts from figures like Thomas Moreton or Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca become apparent once Native actions can be placed in a cultural and cosmological frame of reference. The veil of the colonial gaze begins to lift by comparing those sources to various Native origin stories and recognizing the biases in Euro-American sources and asking what we can learn about Native peoples from those sources despite those biases.

Focusing on primary sources helps students understand how historical narratives are constructed depending upon which primary sources are privileged and what questions are asked. For example, the complexities of Native geopolitics and societies become more apparent when students analyze the Commerce Petroglyph and the Catawba Deerskin Map. Pedro Naranjo’s 1681 testimony explaining why the Pueblo peoples threw the Spanish out of New Mexico, makes clear the ways the Spanish attempted to suppress Pueblo religious practices even while offering evidence of Spanish coercion during Naranjo’s testimony. Henry Woodward’s 1674 trip to Hickauhaugau highlights the violent nature of the Native slave and fur trades that developed with groups like the Westo and Savanna in the Southern piedmont. By providing students with the sources and the tools to analyze them, they can begin to think critically about the information presented to them and learn to apply that to their own analyses and evaluations. Through an increased focus on primary sources, we can introduce students to historical analyses and methodologies, challenge Euro-centric historical Narratives, and demonstrate the value of the historical profession.

Leave a Reply

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