Infusing Multiple Narratives in History Classrooms: Native American Studies

12 Min Read
Infusing Multiple Narratives in History Classrooms: Native American Studies

Photo: Labor Day Pow Wow outside of Black River in Wisconsin. (Courtesy of David J. O’Connor and Paul Rykken)

As social studies and history educators, we are charged with providing emerging citizens with authentic, accurate, and practical information in the reconstruction of the past, empowering them to navigate their day-to-day reality and future interactions. To respond to the charge given to us as educators, all students must see themselves within the larger story of history within the United States of America. In the context of this writing, we will be using U.S. history rather than the conventional or most used phrase of American history. The U.S. is one of 35 countries across North and South America, including Central America, resulting in no singular American identity or ownership of this term. Taken further, there is no single Native American story, history, culture, etc. This fact makes context, environment, and place immensely important in understanding how to examine or interpret parallel and competing narratives. In Wisconsin, for example, there are 11 federally recognized Tribal Nations and one that is not federally recognized. While we may draw some general parallels, each Nation has a unique story.

If we begin with the premise that conventional versions of history frequently neglect the stories of traditionally marginalized communities or, at best, offer superficial narratives of those communities, then our challenge is to change our conversations with the past among ourselves and with our students. How do we reframe our pedagogy to incorporate multiple narratives within our classrooms, so our future alumni reflect on what they learn in their education? Let us start with three building blocks: reading, content integration, and scaffolding of information.

Reading and Engaging with Authentic Native American Voices

First, the ability to unpack what you know is a critical part of integrating multiple narratives into your teaching and learning. Before you can move forward in incorporating multiple narratives, the unpacking of what you already know and understand is a crucial building block in the process. After unpacking, which is continual throughout the building block process, you must strengthen the depth of your content. One way to achieve this end is to read, read, and read some more (alternatively, you can listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, or find other ways to engage with authentic Native American voices). The opportunity to bring in multiple voices from various sides is crucial in helping you frame and reframe what you know moving forward. This process of always reading also helps you become an ongoing learner, not just an educator. This point is when you start to teach culturally versus only teaching about cultures.

“The opportunity to bring in multiple voices from various sides is crucial in helping you frame and reframe what you know moving forward.”

David J. O’Connor

American Indian Studies Consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

Content Integration

Second, we must stop only trying to fit First Nations history into the history or social studies curriculum. Teaching Native American history as an add-on or elective makes it seem disconnected from the larger story of the U.S. The relegating of American Indian histories to the past and not connecting them to the present makes it seem as if the stories of Native people have ended when in reality, the truth to their stories, histories, and cultures continues now and into the future.

The old notion of history repeating itself is also something that needs to be re-examined. Instead, we should look at history from the perspective that it is not repeating itself, but rather it rhymes. For example, in Wisconsin during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, there was controversy and conflict between Ojibwe (also referred to as Anishinabe or Chippewa) and non-Native community members. The conflict centered around the perceived ownership by the non-Native community members of desirable environmental resources caused by a lack of understanding of the ongoing treaty rights of these Indigenous people and nations to hunt, fish, and gather both on and off reservation in the ceded territories of northern Wisconsin. Today, the Ojibwe and other Native nations still face issues around mining and water rights, which goes back to ongoing treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. Having this understanding is critical for all students. If students do not understand and grasp how times may change, but some things remain the same, especially when you don’t have the whole picture or story, we will likely see such similar conflicts in the future.

The importance of understanding tribal sovereignty and American Indian history is demonstrated in the previous example. Because the non-Native community members were unaware of what treaties were in place and what that meant for their communities, inevitable conflict occurred. The recognition of the importance of this historical and present-day information drove the development of Wisconsin Act 31 in 1989. But even with a state governmental mandate to ensure that ALL Wisconsin students understand the histories, cultures, tribal sovereignty, and treaty rights, not every student has been provided instruction in this important content. This is also an issue in other states. Professor Brian McKinley Jones Brayboy (Lumbee), who teaches at Arizona State University, shares an ongoing reaction from students in his courses: “It doesn’t matter what my students look like, where they come from, almost universally what they say to me is, ‘How come we didn’t learn this earlier? Why wasn’t I taught this in high school? This would have been good for me to know.’ It is time that we as educators know better and do better.”

Infusing multiple narratives in history classrooms native american studies in line 3

In addition to providing authentic counter-narratives, it is important to recognize the potential impact of what can be considered problematic phrases. Language shapes our perception of our environment, our community, and the U.S. We need to be cognizant of the damage problematic phrases can cause. When it comes to teaching and learning about our First Nations and tribal communities, the cultural stories, expressed norms, and values impact both the learner and the educators. It is unfortunately too easy to see how colloquial language can perpetuate the oppression of our Native peoples. We can see the impact of presenting a whole group of nations in a “long ago and far away” manner. Indigenous peoples are presented as historical artifacts, caricatures, or mascots—not as living, breathing members of growing and changing communities. The role of a good educator, a good historian, is to help students understand the truth, not perpetuating stereotypes and tropes.

Words also really do matter. Depending on the words we choose, we impact how information is perceived and accepted as truth. For example, because many of our U.S. history texts tell Native histories in the past tense, with no connection to our present-day lives, some students (and even educators) are surprised to learn that most Indigenous people and nations still exist, are impacting local economies and are thriving community members. Additionally, when Native histories and stories are presented in only one light or perspective, we contribute to the “othering” of both our American Indian perspectives. While there are differences, at the core, we are all human beings.

Scaffolding of Information

To be the most effective learners and educators, it is important for educators to examine their own perspectives and the perspectives used when teaching their students. Anton Treuer (While Earth/Leech Lake Ojibwe), a professor at Bemidji State University, notes that American Indian people “are so often imagined and so infrequently well understood.” By limiting understanding and relying on stereotypic representations, the place of our Indigenous peoples is restricted and often undervalued. As educators, we have the responsibility to ensure students see authentic representations, with the tools that will allow them to question questionable representations.

Molly S. McGlennen (Ojibwe), a professor at Vassar University, shares this concern about the terms we use. She cautions about using “Native American Literature” as a lump term:

After all, there are 574 federally recognized Indigenous tribal nations in the mainland United States alone, and therefore no unified Native American perspective or approach to literature. If you’re from a particular nation, that means that you have your own language, your own relationship to the federal government, your own religion, and your own cultural views.

When educators and historians lump together this myriad of nations into one entity, it negates the importance of each nation’s stories, histories, and cultures while dismissing their uniqueness and inherent sovereignty.

“Depending on the words we choose, we impact how information is perceived and accepted as truth.”

David J. O’Connor

American Indian Studies Consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

It is important for all students, not just American Indian students, to see different people represented in their educational careers. While a student may grow up in a community with limited diversity, as an adult, they will need to interact with many different groups of people different from themselves. When we limit what and about whom we teach, we potentially place limits on our students and their future ability to move through a diverse world. Therefore, representation matters immensely. And while there have been improvements in the amount and authenticity of curricular materials, it is still not sufficient and must continue to grow and develop. For example, a review of children’s literature regarding how many books depicted diverse candidates by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was somewhat disheartening. While half of the reviewed books depicted White characters, First Nations, Latinx, Asian Pacific Island/Asian Pacific American, African/African American characters were not frequently found, with depictions of animals exceeding the number of these groups combined. In this situation, it can make it difficult to provide an authentic and realistic representation of this group of people, allowing stereotypes and misconceptions to flourish.

As educators and historians, improving our knowledge with ongoing reading and research is important. Integrating Native American history into our standard social studies and history courses is good for all students. As part of that process, we must also think in terms of scaffolding the information naturally, and our work should be viewed through a Pre-K–20 lens. First Nations history, like all history, is complex, and our students must be exposed to it throughout their entire educational experience. Key concepts like sovereignty, for example, should be repeated multiple times with increasing levels of nuance and rigor, regardless of grade level.

Reframing Our Approach to Teaching and Learning

Beyond reading, integration, and scaffolding, here are ways we can effectively reframe our approach to the history of American Indian people, nations, and communities in the U.S.

First, we can present empathy as a valid objective of successfully promoting historical understanding. What did the world look like from the point of view of various actors at a particular moment in time? What voices have we missed in our retelling of history? Such an approach often requires a fundamental reorientation. Historian Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country (2001) provides a good example. The dominant narrative of U.S. history has been a story of Euro-American people moving west into an evolving frontier, wrapped in the mantra of “Manifest Destiny” to justify it as inevitable. But what did that Euro-American migration look like from the vantage point of Indigenous people? What were they experiencing? And why is their voice important in the larger story of our past?

Second, by presenting history as a series of valid and often competing narratives, we provide depth and rigor to the practice of history. One way to do that is to challenge dominant voices with counter-narratives through the appropriate use of primary sources. Images, documents, eyewitness accounts, and artifacts ignite the imagination, and bring the past to life, and give students agency in the process of learning about history. It is time to creatively engage in finding appropriate access points within the story of U.S. history to broaden our lens. For example, what did the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) look like from the viewpoint of Indigenous people living in the Ohio country? How were their lives forever changed? And further, how do competing narratives of our Revolution deepen understanding for all students?

Third, we can infuse practices derived from the world of elder epistemology (theory of knowledge) into our teaching. Pedagogy goes beyond the choices of various curricula. Classroom environments can be strengthened by emphasizing the “three R’s”—Respect, Reciprocity, and Relationship. Further, we can move past our dependence on textual sources while respecting and embracing the power of oral history. Words matter. Stories matter. All students can view their personal or family histories within the larger context of more formalized information, leading to greater self-awareness.

Finally, as history educators, we must remain committed to professional growth. The landscape of First Nations history, especially regarding resources, has dramatically shifted in the past 30 years. Three pertinent and representative examples include the website of The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. (especially the “Native Knowledge 360” component), Colin Calloway’s most recent work, The Indian World of George Washington (2018), and WisconsinFirstNations.org, a compendium of information and sources that enhances curriculum work for all grade levels. The two websites mentioned are tremendous gateways for further research. Calloway’s book is a great example of how the traditional story of U.S. History is undergoing incredible reinterpretation by a wide range of historians, both Native and non-Native.

All those engaged in history education, and perhaps especially for non-Native practitioners, must read the latest scholarship chronicling the story of Indigenous people. We owe this to ourselves and our students.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Learn more about HMH Social Studies, which presents the rich, endlessly inventive story of our world, challenging students to dig deep into the past.

Related Reading

Students in a classroom

Amber Silverman

Differentiation vs scaffolding hero

Dana Leon
Shaped Contributor

Fun Christmas Activities School

Brenda Iasevoli
Shaped Executive Editor