Appropriation (?) of the Month: A Textbook Case of the Appropriated Past

By Carol J. Ellick

Imagine for a moment that you are a creative, quiet, inquisitive 9-year-old student in a fourth-grade classroom in Oklahoma. The teacher, very excitedly, has just announced that it is time to celebrate the Land Run, a day on which the school reenacts the opening of the Oklahoma Territory to white settlers in 1889!

Everyone is atwitter because they know that all the boys and girls get to dress in character and take on the role of settlers making their way West to a better life and the promise of free land. Instead of memorizing facts from the history textbook, it’s a day when history comes alive. The excitement is palpable. But what if you are Native American and your history—the one you learn at home—is at odds with the one reenacted to celebrate the Land Run in the classroom?

Until about 10 years ago, I’d only thought peripherally about how history is written and portrayed within the classroom. When I was a guest speaker in classes, I’d tell them that history is really “His Story,” one that is told by men, winners of battles and wars, the rich, and the literate. We’d brainstorm where histories were documented and list those narratives left out of the story. Those missing are fairly obvious in their lack of a voice—the children, the women, the slaves, the illiterate, the prisoners, the losers of battles and wars, and so many others. So much of the body and soul of history is lost because it is viewed and documented through a particularly biased set of eyes. Even if multiple sources are used, we still are missing so much of the story. How do we teach a history that is more inclusive, that incorporates the voices of the underrepresented? How do we provide people with more appropriate and nuanced stories of the past and with histories that are inclusive rather than exclusive?

In my own education, instead of attending a traditional high school history class, I was lucky enough to take a course in Native American Studies. We read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and an American Indian gave a guest lecture. At the time, I didn’t think too deeply about my alternative education. Now I realize just how alternative it was. I became an archaeologist because I wanted to know, from evidence, what happened in the past. But it wasn’t until I moved to Oklahoma that I really saw the depth of the problem. Prior to this, I never thought about how the teaching of history could have a long-lasting impact on today or what the consequences might be within a classroom.

The Land Run ­— oh so important to Oklahoma heritage — means something tragically different to those who are Comanche, or Kiowa, or Cherokee, or Choctaw, or one of the other tribes that were already removed from their traditional home and moved to Oklahoma Territory with the promise of not having to worry about conflicts with whites. For a Native student, the Land Run is an event that stripped their families of land and they are forced to relive this over and over again, year after year, in school. There is nothing for the American Indian student to take pride in about this event, only a repetition of the original minimization of and trauma to their lives and culture. These students grow up in a conflict because they are taught one history at home and another in school. What if they protested and sat out the class? What if they raised their hand to tell the teacher that this is not their history? What can an individual teacher do? The requirements to teach this unit are in the state, district, and local school curricula.

Today, teachers find resources where they can—in texts, reference materials, and on-line.

History books describe the Land Run as an event that took place in 1889 when the federal government, under the provisions of the Homestead Act, opened up two million acres of unassigned lands in Oklahoma Territory to settlers. On that fateful day of April 22, 1889, it is estimated that 50,000 people lined up awaiting the signal to rush out and lay claim to 160 acres and their destiny. What is not taught, or is lightly covered, are the events that led up to the Land Run including the removal of those who lived there and the displacement of lives, cultures, traditions, and ties to place.

Some lessons about the Land Run are excellent from a pedagogical perspective. For example, the one found on the History Colorado website is interactive and uses primary sources for students to reference. Children are encouraged to use higher-level thinking skills to compare and contrast, draw a “Three-Way Venn Diagram,” and write a postcard home telling about the event. But these activities are all taught from the settler’s perspective. Within this lesson, there is nothing on which to build knowledge about the effect of the Land Run on the people who lived there. Indeed, the words “Indian” and “Native” appear nowhere in the lesson text.

Plenty of educational or curricula materials—including textbooks, storybooks, coloring books, and activity guides—mis-educate young minds on Native American history and life simply through the choice of verb tense. There are two issues with verb tense. First, these publications often put Indians in the past as though they are gone forever, when in reality the descendants of those on this continent before “discovery” are still here. The second issue is that such publications often show Native American lifeways as they were in the past, and use a verb tense as if people still live this way. For example, historical images of American Indians are often captioned to read, “Indians live in tipis” as opposed to “Indians lived in tipis,” or “Indians wear buckskin,” instead of “Indians wore buckskin.” Contemporary Native American life is invisible, and the common representations perpetuate stereotypes and deny the diversity of Native cultures. All you need to do is look on-line for free coloring pages (image at top) and you get hundreds of misrepresentations of Native peoples and cultures, depicting people who wore/wear headdresses and buckskin clothing, lived/live in teepees, sent/send smoke signals, rode/ride horses and shot/shoot bows and arrows.

On the bright side, there are materials on-line where a teacher or a parent or caregiver can find more appropriate messages. For example, the website “Unique Thanksgiving Coloring Pages for America” has free printable coloring pages and activities with informative captions. One page with an ear of corn says: “In 1621, Massasoit and his band of native Americans in what is now Massachusetts grew 20 acres of corn and shared it with the English settlers. In the Southwest especially, corn is known as ‘maize.’” I like this page because it contextualizes the event in a specific year and because it says that the location is in “what is now Massachusetts.” There was no state of Massachusetts in 1621, just as there was no United States of America then.

The Oklahoma Historical Society website offers information on the Oklahoma Land Run, including information about the effects on Native peoples.

The question is how do we help teachers, parents, and caregivers find and convey more appropriate versions of history, ones that are inclusive as opposed to exclusive? How can this generation start rewriting a history with more than a single voice or perspective?

As an archaeologist and an educator I developed a heritage education method called “Parallel Perspectives.” This is an approach to materials development that provides a process for understanding the past that involves Indigenous Elders, archaeologists and/or anthropologists, teachers, and children. The process was originally geared to an American Indian community, but it can also be used to create materials that incorporate the voice of any peoples who are being studied by a broad audience. It takes the learner through the process of comparing and contrasting information to build a fuller understanding of people and culture.

Through Parallel Perspectives, children (or adults) analyze information from varying cultural perspectives to develop a personal perspective that recognizes and values alternative explanations, for example in the Subsistence Strategies in Middle to Late Precontact Arizona and Land-use and Life Ways lessons plans (accessible here). Students gain insights based on traditional perspectives, regardless of cultural background, thereby linking them more strongly with their own heritage. Using Parallel Perspectives, teachers find exciting new ways to teach state-mandated educational requirements in mathematics, social studies, and science, and help students connect with their heritage.

There are many challenges related to replacing outdated versions of history. Textbooks tend to be written by writers who are not experts in all the topics covered within texts. They often lack current information. On-line sources can be more easily updated, but can be produced by almost anyone. As with the Colorado materials listed above, they can be pedagogically excellent, yet lacking in represented information. For the illiterate, the women, the children, the losers of battles, and those who have been put on reservations, the past is still a site of contention and misrepresentation. The stories found in history books today continue to deny a nuanced understanding of the experiences and perspectives of these groups. Moving towards more educationally sound and culturally appropriate materials is a daunting process, but the first step is for educators, including teachers, heritage professionals and parents, to understand that there are perspectives that are left out of the classroom. Those absences are an appropriation of other peoples’ heritage that should be addressed in the classroom at all grade levels.


References and Recommended Resources

Brown, Dee. 1971. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. Holt, Henry & Company, New York.

Beckham, Linda S., and Charles Keim. 1995. Land Runs Past and Future. Innovative Educational Products, L.L.C. Accessed July 23, 2014.

Ellick, Carol J. 2008. Subsistence Strategies in Middle to Late Precontact Arizona. Accessed July 23, 2014.

Ellick, Carol J. 2004. Land-use and Life Ways. Accessed July 23, 2014.

History Colorado. n.d.  Primary Source Activity: The Oklahoma Land Rush, Lesson Plan, Unit 3: Chapter 10.  Accessed July 23, 2014.

Oklahoma Historical Society. ND. For Kids. The Oklahoma Land Run. Accessed July 23, 2014.

Carol J. Ellick,  M.A., RPA, is Director of Archaeological and Cultural Education (ACE) Consultants and an IPinCH Associate.

Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, highlight the complexity of 'cultural appropriation' and 'cultural appreciation'.