Teaching a more Inclusive United States History

While teaching the History of Early Native North America, I am occasionally surprised that certain aspects of Native American history and the history of Early America and the United States are new for students. Numerous times throughout the course I asked students if they ever learned about any of this before? From the Native slave trades in New England, the Southeast, and Southwest, to changes in gender roles, the complexities of Hasinai Caddo social organizations, or the importance of the White Dog and Mississippi River in Chickasaw origin stories—the answer has repeatedly been no.1)For discussions of the Native slave trade in New England, the Southeast, and Southwest see: Lindford D. Fisher, “‘Why shall wee have peace to bee made slaves’: Indian Surrenderers during and after King Philip’s War,” Ethnohistory 64, n. 1 (January 2017): 91–114; Alejandra Dubcovsky, “Defying Indian Slavery: Apalachee Voices and Spanish Sources in the Eighteenth-Century Southeast,” William and Mary Quarterly 75, n. 2 (April 2018): 295–322; Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006). For changes in gender roles and the study of women and gender history among Native peoples in the Southeast see Michelle LeMaster, “Pocahontas Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Women and Gender in the Native South before Removal,” Native South 7 (2014): 1–32. For the complexities of Hasinai Caddo social organization see Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). Finally, for Chickasaw origin stories and place-worlds see Dustin J. Mack, “The Chickasaws’ Place-World: The Mississippi River in Chickasaw History and Geography,” Native South 11 (2018): 1–28. Much of the material we have covered is new to students. I am pleased that the course has introduced new materials to students and because of that I feel more confident in the design of the course. My surprise is a reflection of the reality of what is expected in a United States history class.

However, what I find most informative about the state of teaching U. S. history are the numerous occasions when students have expressed their own surprise at the materials we have covered. Students are often shocked by the lengths to which—before and after independence—American colonists racialized and othered Native peoples in attempts to expand land claims westward. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century Euro-American views of Native peoples become clearer when students read primary and secondary sources that center Native peoples. Furthermore, the actions of colonizers become clear through British and American desires to “extirpate” Native peoples, American officials’ efforts to use annuities to buy influence among headmen to intentionally swindle Natives out of their lands, and President James Monroe’s ideas about the impossibility of Native assimilation as U.S. citizens.2)Jeffrey Ostler, “‘To Extirpate the Indians”: An Indigenous Consciousness of Genocide in the Ohio Valley and Lower Great Lakes, 1750s–1810,” William and Mary Quarterly 72, n. 4 (October 2015): 587–622; Gregory E. Dowd, “Thinking and Believing: Nativism and Unity in the Ages of Pontiac and Tecumseh,” American Indian Quarterly 16, n. 3 (Summer 1992): 309–335; “President Monroe, Message on Indian Removal, January 27, 1825,” in Donna Martinez, ed., Documents of American Indian Removal (Santa Barbara, Cal.: ABC-CLIO, 2019): 28–30. Just as the words of the U.S. Constitution make it clear in Article 1, Section 2 that the founders did not see “Indians not taxed” or “three fifths of all other persons” (enslaved people) to be potential citizens as “Free Persons,” the words and actions of Americans and the U.S. government make clear their priorities and goals at the time. American citizens and U.S. officials wrote down what they wanted to do. It stands to reason we should take them at their words. Through this perspective, it is not radical to say that the United States sought the spread westward of white male (often slave owning) property owners.

But what remains revealing is how the change in perspective and narrative about the United States—from fledgling democracy to slave owning white male republic—still surprises students today. Moreover, how easily that revelation came simply through “Teaching Native Primary Sources” and changing the perspectives of sources we read in the course. Focusing on how Native people understood the United States and its expansion westward creates a point of self-reflection for American citizens about the mythologies surrounding our founding principles. Furthermore, centering Native perspectives in Early America, demonstrates that the United States was not inevitable. The United States was constructed on conquest and colonization. What does that mean in a nation that professes to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity?” Who does “ourselves” mean in that context?

As the meaning ascribed to citizenship and “Americanness” have broadened, the histories we tell have changed with it—or, at the very least, should change with it. Part of the problem lies in U.S. histories that continue to tell the stories of Native peoples as narratives of erasure and declension, which I briefly addressed in a previous blogpost “What does Native American History Teach us about Early America and the United States?” However, as students this semester have tried to learn about the history of early America and the United States through Native perspectives, for many it has become clearer that the United States in the Early Republic was the bastion of liberty only for those who fit into the criteria of white male Protestants. The question that remains is what does that story of the United States mean to students who do not fit those categories?

This becomes a question of alignment, course design, and the goals of teaching United States history. Are we teaching students to be critical thinkers, American and International citizens, or human beings? As fellow contributor Caitlyn Cotton put it, the goal is “to continue to push our field from the narrow to the holistic, from the rote to the practical, in the hopes of not just teaching students but teaching humans in all of their social context.” Teaching the history of continuity and change in American democracy matters. The goal of our course was to ask what Native American history could teach us about the history of the United States? By centering Native peoples, the history of the United States changes and is revised to include Native American and Indigenous peoples who are too often written out of that history. What is still being revised in U.S. history is a reflection of the revised definition of who belongs in the American body politic—whose stories matter. Centering Native sources and perspectives is one attempt to create a more inclusive history of Early America and the United States to reflect that revision. When we tell stories that are more inclusive, the history of the United States looks different. I would argue for the better. U.S. history can begin to reflect a multiracial democracy and to help us understand inequities that still persist today while giving us a path to a more informed citizenry to continue to improve ourselves as humans and our American democracy.

References   [ + ]

1. For discussions of the Native slave trade in New England, the Southeast, and Southwest see: Lindford D. Fisher, “‘Why shall wee have peace to bee made slaves’: Indian Surrenderers during and after King Philip’s War,” Ethnohistory 64, n. 1 (January 2017): 91–114; Alejandra Dubcovsky, “Defying Indian Slavery: Apalachee Voices and Spanish Sources in the Eighteenth-Century Southeast,” William and Mary Quarterly 75, n. 2 (April 2018): 295–322; Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006). For changes in gender roles and the study of women and gender history among Native peoples in the Southeast see Michelle LeMaster, “Pocahontas Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Women and Gender in the Native South before Removal,” Native South 7 (2014): 1–32. For the complexities of Hasinai Caddo social organization see Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). Finally, for Chickasaw origin stories and place-worlds see Dustin J. Mack, “The Chickasaws’ Place-World: The Mississippi River in Chickasaw History and Geography,” Native South 11 (2018): 1–28.
2. Jeffrey Ostler, “‘To Extirpate the Indians”: An Indigenous Consciousness of Genocide in the Ohio Valley and Lower Great Lakes, 1750s–1810,” William and Mary Quarterly 72, n. 4 (October 2015): 587–622; Gregory E. Dowd, “Thinking and Believing: Nativism and Unity in the Ages of Pontiac and Tecumseh,” American Indian Quarterly 16, n. 3 (Summer 1992): 309–335; “President Monroe, Message on Indian Removal, January 27, 1825,” in Donna Martinez, ed., Documents of American Indian Removal (Santa Barbara, Cal.: ABC-CLIO, 2019): 28–30.

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