Representations of Native Americans in Elementary School Social Studies: A Critical Look at Instructional Language

By Mason, Michele R.; Ernst-Slavit, Gisela | Multicultural Education, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Representations of Native Americans in Elementary School Social Studies: A Critical Look at Instructional Language


Mason, Michele R., Ernst-Slavit, Gisela, Multicultural Education


Introduction

In a fourth grade classroom in the Pacific Northwest, a teacher and her students are reviewing one of the most infamous events in U.S. history: "The Trail of Tears," the forced resettlement of the Cherokee people from Georgia to Oklahoma-known by the Cherokee as "nu na hi du na tlo hi lu i" or the "Trail Where They Cried." After several teacher prompts, students cite the Indian Removal Act as the reason why the Cherokee were forced to move west of the Mississippi River. Seeking more information, Jeanette probes her students as she points to the Cherokee Nation's ancestral homeland in parts of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama:

Jeanette: And what was special about that land? There's tons of land. What was so unique about that? Joel.

Joel: If you dug, like, deep enough, you could find, like, gold? Like a gold mine?

Jeanette: [They] discovered gold.

Ashley: Is that, like, the only reason why they [the Cherokee] had to move? Just because they [European-Americans] wanted to be rich?

Jeanette: That was why.

Ashley: Well, that's a dumb reason!

Students: (laughing)

Jeanette: I agree.

Ashley's blunt comment evoked student laughter and the mild agreement of her teacher. The conversation continued with similar exchanges before students engaged in two culminating activities: (1) a written summary of The Trail of Tears and (2) a "pictograph expressing how the Cherokee felt."

During this 15-minute review one important learning objective was apparent: to have children empathize with the Cherokee Nation's point of view. This was certainly accomplished as demonstrated by Ashley's incredulous comment and by similar responses by her peers as discussed below. What was missing, however, was a space for children to critically analyze and problematize the basic cause of the displacement of the Cherokee. Jeanette, consciously or unconsciously, used questions inviting feelings of empathy for the Other but missed the opportunity to further explore historical reasons for unjust treatment, such as land theft.

The vignette above illustrates how Jeanette constructed-via language and representation-a way to interpret Western history, detached from a critical perspective. It is her speech that guides the discussion; her words and her silence frame and construct the "story" of The Trail of Tears. As Weedon (1987) explains,

Language is the place where actual and possible forms of social organization and their likely social and political consequences are defined and contested. Yet it is also the place where our sense of ourselves, our subjectivity, is constructed. (p. 21)

The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the language used by fourth and fifth grade teachers during social studies instruction and to discuss the implications of how this language frames non-dominant groups, as in this case. Via the discussion of segments of instructional conversations, we point to the pervasive use of language that perpetuates stereotypes and biased representations of Native American history.

To frame the analysis, we discuss three different perspectives. First, we summarize the literature on Otherness, particularly, how the Other is constructed (1) through language, (2) in Western history, and (3) in classroom discourse. Second, we share information about the Critical Language Awareness movement rooted in the United Kingdom. This body of work is concerned with the relationship between language and social context, particularly educators' awareness of how ideology and power structures inherent in language play out during daily school routines.

In addition, we highlight the National Social Studies Standards' focus on helping students construct a pluralist perspective based on diversity. We argue that by carefully examining the talk that transpires in classroom discussions, we can have a window into how knowledge, identity, social positioning, and value systems are constructed by teachers and students. …

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