Mom, Have You Ever Seen a Real Indian? the Intersection of Personal Identity and Social Studies Education

Article excerpt

The Indian "Problem"

In the context of U.S. history, the words "Indian Problem" have referred to the many ways that the dominant culture has attempted to assimilate, remove, or otherwise force indigenous people into being "civilized" (Jackson, 1994; Loewen, 2007; Wilkins & Lomawaima, 2001). Akin to the notion of "white man's burden," framing indigenous people as a problem to be "dealt with" is obvious throughout U.S. history: placement of the Bureau of Indian Affairs originally within the U.S. War Department, forced boarding schools (Rains, 2003), colonial invasions and genocide (Zinn, 2003), government "removal" (Takaki, 1993), and broken treaties (Prucha, 1962; Deloria, 1969/1988). In the collective consciousness of non-Indian Americans, "real" Indians are real only inasmuch as they fit the caricatured noble savage stereotype. In fact, many Americans are convinced that Indians simply don't exist (Rains, 2003) in modern times. Racial stereotyping in popular culture and official schooling reinforces not only long held beliefs about minority groups, but also provides readymade justifications for why certain groups are treated in certain ways (Lintner, 2004).

The Indian Problem and Social Studies Education

"You can't teach what you don't know, any more than you can come back from where you ain't More than any other subject

taught in U.S. schools, the stereotyping of American Indians largely takes place within the social studies. Perhaps this is due to the narratives that we tell about the founding of the country that begin with Native and European contact. "History is, to a large degree, taught from the personal perceptions of history teachers" (Lintner, 2004, p. 29), and since our public school teaching force is largely Euro-American, teaching about "Indians" can be problematic. Textbooks are also to blame (Loewen, 2007; Loewen, 2010) for this state of affairs; textbooks are, at their core, documents written by authors seeking state approval, thus giving their readers a particular point of view (Romanowski, 1996). Within this value-laden process (Nash, Crabtree, & Dunn, 2000), authors not only include information about Native populations, but do so from a sanitized, narrow, largely tokenized point of view.

The stories that Americans have told one another about Indians have changed with the political atmosphere of the country. However, one constant theme shot through the American narrative is the "Indian as impediment" (Ward, 2006). Although this content usually falls to the social studies teacher, the social studies profession does not adequately represent the complexity of Indian history, nor are social studies teachers prepared to teach this content in any depth. As Rains (2006) claims, "Unfortunately, the social studies curriculum has not been constructed in a manner that offers many citizens the means they need to counter the deluge of racial stereotypes and misinformation that exists within popular culture, mass media, and day-to-day living" (pp. 137-138). Typical instruction on Native populations is minimal at best, usually taking place within the first days of U.S. history, buried in a unit on the "Age of Exploration" (Chandler, 2010). This treatment of Indians takes on an "In the Beginning," mythical treatment where historical actors are dichotomized into "usthem" or "good-bad" categories. Treatment of Indigenous people in the second half of American history is even worse; they are essentially absent from the narrative (Rains, 2002). Part of this curricular treatment is due to teachers' reliance (Levstik, 2008) on state sanctioned textbooks that downplay the role of Native populations in early U.S. history. This leads to a pedagogy of "cataloging" (Chandler, 2010) about the minorities: geographical locale, diet, religious customs (Deloria, 1997; Deloria, 1999; Loewen, 2007), and housing. Another culprit is ignorance on the part of a majority white (Feagin, 2010; Leonardo, 2009) teaching force, who simply lack knowledge about Indians, particularly the socio-political construction (Omi & Winant, 1994; Said, 1993) of a supposedly inferior "Indian" race. …