As students, we learn about the issues leading to the Civil War and the effects of the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s. Yet, it is rare to learn about Native Americans outside of the context of the Pilgrims or as groups that caused conflict in the American West.
Unfortunately, the portrayal of Native Americans is often stereotypical, inaccurate or outdated.
In an article from Pacific Standard, Sarah Shear, a professor of education at Penn State University discovered that state standards regarding Native Americans only view them as a population that existed before 1900, when there are still thriving Native American populations throughout the United States.
This means some people believe these groups no longer exist even though they do, mainly in places like South Dakota and Oklahoma. This lack of education allows future Americans to continue a system of suppression, erasure and lack of information about the Native Americans from the history books.
The study of Native American history allows a student to explore a rich and complex system of traditions that have been established over thousands of years. At the same time, it is also a history that has become tainted by exploitation of Native American populations under the system of settler colonialism.
Getting American college students to grapple with the complexities of Native American history is one of the many challenges of teaching in 21st-century college classrooms.
Settler colonialism seeks to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers. Teaching students about the form of colonization is the least we can do, not only as educators but also as people of the Midwest as a way to acknowledge what happened to these groups.
This is further exemplified by the fact if we do not teach students about it, it is like we as a society are trying to erase what happened and not pay reparations to what our ancestors did to the Native Americans.
This conversation needs to begin while students are still in middle school or high school to create these foundations so college professors can go further in depth on these topics. While there are some institutions that do provide Native American studies as a major or minor, a majority of institutions only have one or two courses that even address the plight of the Native Americans.
In an article from the Organization of American Historians, Gregory D. Smithers wrote of how these state standards limited the education students received in the K-12 system.
“I've lost count of the number of students who've graduated from public schools in Virginia and expressed frustration at how ‘standards of learning’ rubrics and bureaucratic metrics narrowed their high school history education,” Smithers said. “From a young age, these students still learn that ‘in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue’ and sit through simplistic lessons about Squanto and the origins of Thanksgiving.”
Smithers went on to elaborate on how this generic education hinders a student’s development of critical thinking skills.
This might count as ‘patriotic history,’ but the dumbing down of Native American history in K–12 classrooms leaves students ill-prepared for the type of critical thinking skills needed in college classrooms and, in the long-term, imperils, rather than strengthens, American democracy.” Smithers said.
In an age of polarization, some demand a "pro-American" history curriculum that erases anything that is deemed to be unacceptable or too violent for the masses to be made aware of, and this is why a discussion over topics like Native American history causes a rise of anxiety and conflict in the classroom and other spheres of influence like the media and within their families.
This anxiety is something historians and Americans need to come to terms with. This lack of education has allowed for the history that has affected thousands of people to be overlooked in an academic sense and a public sense. This is something students, especially those that live in the Midwest, need to learn more about when they are in the public school system.
This is why it is so important to teach people about the Native Americans and the struggles they endured during the first few centuries of European contact.
This process of not teaching students about the Native Americans erases an entire group of people who were heavily involved in the development of the American West and their subsequent relocation to the reservations at the hands of the United States government.
While teaching about Native Americans can be difficult, it is still important, especially for those who in middle school and high school.
When this conversation is presented to students, it needs to be presented in the scope of it being a major part of the early history of the American West as well as the Midwest.
As people who live in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska, our history is clearly linked with the Native Americans, and their history is something that needs to be taught so people can learn more about these diverse groups.