Contemporary education in social sciences amounts to teaching of the principles of Manifest Destiny. In a recent student essay from a University they stated, “set curriculums of history protect and glorify the rise of the US, it hurts true Natives to the land and increases the already growing stereotypes that they face in society.” Very Insightful!
Native History Education
Currently education about the history of the US ignores the real true history of the tribes. Most times local tribal histories are not taught at all. What education about the tribes amounts to is a generalized history of “Native Americans” and usually about some attractive aspect of the culture. I have seen good presentations about Indian dwellings where kids construct models and write exhibits about the meaning of the dwellings. I have seen exhibitions and teachings about Native Dance and costume. Rarely if ever is there instruction about the complete culture and history of Oregon tribes.
In many fourth grade classes in Oregon, when Native history is taught, students construct covered wagons or learn about the virtues of the Oregon Trail or Lewis and Clark. These subjects are rich in the history of American exploration and settlement in the West, and the Manifest Destiny of the Americans to take this land, and only peripherally addresses Native History. The perspectives of Native people, how Native people thought about this invasion of Whites into their lands, is completely ignored. The history is washed of all negativity, and nothing is said about genocide, about loss of land, loss of culture, loss of people to diseases and wars, racism against Native peoples, reservation experiences, boarding schools, the Dawes Act, additional loss of land and natural resources in the 20th century, fishing rights, treaty rights, or termination of the tribes. This is not at all a comprehensive list but you get the point.
Very Old Curriculum
Native history normally involves how native people helped the development of American civilization in the West and essentially got out of the way. There are some deviations from this in a scattering of schools, but that’s really based on the efforts of rare teachers. I know this is the case, because after teaching Native studies and Anthropology in six different colleges in Western Oregon for the past 12 years, the majority of students, 99%, are learning about Native people for the first time. The majority have had no instruction that they remember from their public or private schools. They are amazed and surprised that there was and is a great diversity of tribes, in Oregon, and that the tribes have a extremely long history (at least 15,000 years) and that there is a diversity of cultures and languages. They are also amazed at how the United States has treated the tribes and about the fact that the US government and their settler predecessors were party to the aforementioned actions that disenfranchised and dis-empowered the original peoples of this land.
Heroes of Oregon
Instead the heroes of Oregon are primarily taught. Jason Lee, John McLaughlin, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. On rare occasions, a Native chief like Chief Joseph is addressed. The Oregon Trail is a primary subject, it being an amazing journey of faith by Americans hoping to find opportunity in a new holy land, A literal American Eden. The very definition of Manifest Destiny. The Indian wars may be discussed but by definition, Indian Wars suggests that the Indians were the reason for the wars, while if not for the settlers to Oregon and the Gold Rush, these conflicts would not have occurred.
Those Who Win Write Their History
The history as taught is a study in American privilege. The Privilege to tell the history so it benefits Americans so that Americans are glorified so that all actions of the Americans are justified because the Indians were first, not human, and second, rogues, scoundrels, thieves, murderers, and savages. They are not human because settlers refused to accept that the Tribes had governance, laws, systems of counting, history, legitimate spirituality, etc. In many discussions there is in fact a denial of all of these characteristics of civilization. Many people still believe natives had no concept of time, laws, math, ownership of land, and many other denials. The notion that tribes did not own the land, is not true at all. These are new-age mythologies built up by generations of pseudo-native philosophers.
History as Historical Fiction
Then, on these layers of colonized historical and cultural information, is a whole lot of miss-information. Like new age mythologies about native philosophy, of philosophies that have literally been whitewashed so that they are acceptable to the population, are fictional stories of the naming of places and of mythological heroes. The name of Mt. Hood is not Wy-east, which may have been invented for a play from Frederick Balch’s book Bridge of the Gods, which is historical fiction, not a true account. Yet generations of Portlanders and Oregonians believe that that is, the native name of Mt. Hood as it is taught that way in school. Similarly, the idea of Chief Multnomah, also created by Balch, is historical fiction. There are many other fictions, like those addressing the extinction of tribes, the naming of the last of a tribe, like those stories about Indian Mary (of Brownsville), as being the last of the Kalapuya, when in fact that is not the case at all.
Then, the characterizations of the natives are very racist. Indian as stoic warriors. Indians as drunks, as if they did not have the genes to process alcohol. Indians as lazy, as not working hard. Indians as wasting their lands and resources. Indians as always angry and violent. The recent Fargo series which has one angry and murderous Indian is a good example. Indians as freeloaders, welfare recipients. Indians as stupid, activists, criminals, etc. Today we have Indians seen as being wealthy casino owners. In the 1950s, Indian communities were likened to communism and socialism The list goes on, and while we cannot say that every school system is teaching this for certain, it is fairly ingrained in our society, and there certainly is not education away from this way of thinking.
Moral Center of the World
So yes, essentially our American history is biased by the principles of Manifest Destiny, the notion that Americans were destined (by God), to take over a great land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century. In the present generation and for the past 160 years at least, our education system has extolled the virtues of Manifest Destiny and presented a history of an America, built on the principals of democracy, where the only struggles are to defend the Nation from the evils of the world outside. In nearly all scenarios the United States is the moral and ethical center of the world in this history. That vision relies heavily upon not teaching about all of the immoral and unethical actions of Americans and the United States that destroyed and moved Native people out of the way. There is currently no place for that story in education.
Why would that be important? What are the benefits of teaching the whole history? All people are of the world, and all people and cultures deserve the respect of that status. To only discuss the virtues of the United States is creating an artificial understanding of the history of the world we all live in. In the situation of the tribes, for the past 500+ years, tribal people and cultures were not respected, were looked down upon, and the tribes were seen as an infestation that needed eradicating so that the true and legitimate people could take over the land and make better use of it. Within that dynamic, there is little opportunity for understanding and respect.
We may decry the events of the past, but we live in the present. We cannot do much about the past, or can we? So many people come up to me after my presentations and say they are sorry for what has occurred to native peoples. There is an aspect of guilt in their statements of apology as if they cannot do anything now and want some sort of absolution for the evils of their ancestors. That is the easy way to respond and takes little effort on their part. It is an empty gesture unless they actually act to partially fix the problem today. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it, and not continue to cover up the truth by supporting and accepting an education system that makes native peoples invisible in our history, without saying something.
A big part of our collective experience is an understanding that what has happened to us, whether 500 years ago or 160 years ago, is an unforgivable series of attacks on our peoples to destroy and eliminate us all from this world. And every part of western civilization worked against our survival, churches and religions, governments, explorers, industrialists, settlers, and even the diseases they carried and the farm animals they brought here. For centuries the whole of the societies of Europe and later the United States worked to commit genocide on our people, to eradicate us like polio or smallpox or wolves. And then in the present era, the details of those attacks on our people were erased from the history books, erased from the educational curriculum. The book Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison) is a perfect story of how this has occurred, just replace all of the Black references with Native or Indian references. That is how the genocide continues today, an erasure of the history of our people.
Interestingly, the story of the past 500 years of colonization of the Americas exists not only in European culture but in Native cultures as well. Our histories are at least half of the story of how this history unfolded. To make half of the story invisible creates a historical fallacy, that is re-taught or re-centralized each generation.
The Problem today
In Oregon, there have been efforts to create a curriculum to address the history of the tribes. By and large, the curriculum is not being used. Whether related to the fact that most teachers are not trained to teach Native studies, or there is no “approved” curriculum available, that they know of, or there is no will on the part of administrators to offer any new units that change the content of the 4th-grade curriculum, or there is no money to implement such a program. The fact is that it is not being taught, and most efforts have been in vain. The education system is now saddled with a succession of national education programs that attempt to standardize all education in the country. one of the latest, No child left behind, now repealed was a failure. And now the STEM program, attached to federal money, is directing education away from Social sciences altogether. STEM will create a generation of students who do not know anything of America’s past, much less that of any other ethnic or cultural groups. What will happen when there are generations of adults who are a-historical? What does this do to our communities, to our national cohesion, to our past and future? This is one of the greatest experiments in the history of education and ranks up there with Indian Boarding Schools and their assimilationist curriculum.
(What is now taught needs a new phrase, manifest education, an education built on creating intentional ignorance in the next generation of Americans by erasing the minority perspective of history.)
A Well-Rounded Education?
The Tribes have offered some education and curriculum, but the tribal resources are not enough to handle all of the needs. Tribal educators have been going into classrooms and offering historical and cultural education in one-hour segments to numerous schools. This has been somewhat successful but unsustainable. Still, some education is better than nothing. The fact is the education of our children needs to be not a focused effort at a few mathematical or scientific programs, but more well rounded, where people have the opportunity to become knowledgeable about a variety of subjects. The extreme need to grow scientists, engineers, and mathematicians and perhaps take the lead on innovation in the world, I believe, is a path to an immature society.
There is a significant role in society for offering perspectives and histories of Natives and other minority peoples. People like to see how they relate to the history of the United States, and others appreciate seeing a holistic history that truly represents the diversity of our society. As the history of our education system has shown it will not change unless the community demands that change needs to happen. This means we need to support efforts to stop teaching history through the lens of Manifest Destiny. We need to “decolonize” our education system to accomplish this.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.