Decolonizing the US History Survey
Integrating Native Voices and Experiences through Digital History
Every summer I reflect on the previous year’s courses and think about how I could improve both their content and my teaching. I begin by examining my yearlong calendar, where at the end of each school day, I leave brief descriptions of the documents we covered in class and other short notes to myself. Last year, one note stood out, bold and in all caps: “I NEED TO DO A BETTER JOB OF THIS NEXT YEAR.” That day, in December 2016, we’d finished our discussion of the Plains Indian Wars in my AP US History course. I’d failed that day to properly center native voices, to convey the horrors of the wars, and to make clear their connections to previous and future US policy.
In an effort to do better, I spent time that summer reading a range of sources and books on indigenous history, US imperialism, and the American West. This year I included more primary sources, contextualized every image, and used maps to visually represent the theft of native land. Yet, looking back at this year’s calendar, I noticed a troubling pattern. Indigenous history loomed large in my course at three distinct points—precontact and colonial America, Indian Removal, and westward expansion—and, absent a discussion of the American Indian Movement, appeared only as a sidebar in other parts of my course. Others have written more broadly about these and related issues, and I encourage teachers to turn to them. The following is my attempt to begin to integrate native history throughout the courses I teach by using digital history projects. I hope that by paying attention to geographic, material, and oral histories, these projects will help me center native voices, names, and places in the classroom.
Since its earliest days, digital history has grappled with maps and depictions of space. Exceptional digital history projects like ORBIS and American Panorama, as well as projects like Slate’s visualization of the Atlantic slave trade, can be easily used to deepen students’ understanding of historical concepts and add to their visual literacy. Indigenous history is no exception. The most accessible resource that I’ll be returning to time and time again this year is Invasion of America, a project created by two historians at the University of Georgia. The time-lapse map depicts indigenous people’s dispossession of land from 1788 to 2010, and is searchable by nation. The animated map allows students to recognize that the US government’s seizure of native land did not happen all at once or just in a few major moments. Rather, it was an ongoing process for the first 120 years of the United States’ history.
A number of indigenous depictions of space have been recently digitized and I will incorporate those in my teaching as well. Notable amongst these is the Catawba map of native nations surrounding colonial Charleston, and Too Né’s recently rediscovered map of the American Midwest drawn for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I’m planning to pair these indigenous maps with western maps of colonial America and the Lewis and Clark expedition and ask students to compare these depictions of space. What does each map prioritize? What can they tell us about how their creators understood their world? I hope to incorporate the work of scholars who have emphasized the violence inherent in map-making as part of these conversations. By placing borders on native-controlled land, the US government sought to assert its sovereignty and justify future outbreaks of violence against native peoples.
I’m also planning to make frequent use of digital projects highlighting oral histories of Native Americans. Primary sources authored by native peoples often appear toward the beginning, middle, and end of US surveys. The speeches and letters of Powhatan, Pontiac, Tecumseh, Chief Joseph, and the American Indian Movement, for example, appear in many US history textbooks. Yet a growing set of digital archives make oral histories from native people of all ages, classes, and genders, not just the elites, available to students and teachers.
A leading source is the Native Americans Oral History Collections at the University of Florida, which provides searchable transcripts of hundreds of oral histories by members of the Catawba, Lumbee, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Seminole nations collected throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The collections offer valuable insights into native life and can be easily used to contextualize other historical events. For example, a unit on the Cold War and the nuclear arms race can include oral histories about the effects of uranium mining on the Diné people. Another exceptionally well-done digital project is on the 1862 US-Dakota War that brings together oral histories collected between 2011 and 2012, and explores memory and its impact on the present. Finally, several libraries and schools have started digitizing interviews with children forced to attend Indian Boarding Schools during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that should also resonate with students.
Another approach to better integrate indigenous history throughout the year is to tap into the rich material and visual histories of native peoples. Critical analysis of Diné rugs using the Woven into History project can deepen students’ knowledge of 20th-century Diné history and broaden their understanding of sources that can be used to write history. The fascinating project, On the Wampum Trail, similarly offers students resources to explore diverse native cultural practices, the size and extent of trading networks, and the very process of doing history, while studying the colonial period. Much of the Newberry Library’s sizeable collection of images of native peoples, both by native and non-native artists, is also online, and their classroom collection contains some excellent guiding questions for students to use when analyzing images from the 19th century. In addition, the superb Performing Archive: Curtis and the “Vanishing Race” presents thousands of images of early 20th-century native life and provides excellent resources on teaching them. A more contemporary set of native produced media can be found at Initiative for Indigenous Futures.
I see this as the start of a long process to decolonize my curriculum, one in which I hope to continue to listen to native voices and organizations. Many of the sources described above attempt to present native voices and deepen our understanding of native history, but few are collated, archived, or owned by native peoples. As other scholars have written on this issue, teachers and researchers need to be sensitive to how these materials are created, used, and taught. I look forward to proceeding carefully and mindfully, and to improve my teaching of native history.
John Rosinbum is a high school and college instructor in Tucson, Arizona, whose focus is on pedagogy, research methods, and immigration history. He writes on 21st-century teaching in the series Teaching with #DigHist for Perspectives Daily and refugee policy for the journal Refuge.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.