Social Studies Opinion

Whose Land Are You On? How to Get Started Teaching Native American History

Stop treating Native history as an add-on to the regular curriculum
By Jerad Koepp & Alison McCartan — December 07, 2023 4 min read
Stylized vector illustration of Indigenous Peoples.
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Native American Heritage Month, just concluded, represents an interesting tension for educators. There’s a drive to celebrate culture—and why not, when Native culture is so frequently overlooked or erased in public school curriculum? At the same time, teachers can feel frustrated—and overwhelmed—that there’s only one month out of the year to turn their focus to the hundreds of tribes within the United States. It’s easy to feel like a handful of lessons in November about Native American art or storytelling isn’t enough. It isn’t.

But even asking the question of how much time to spend on Native cultures in your history class is to assume that Native history is an add-on to the regular curriculum. If Native history is an add-on, that means that regular curriculum is by, for, and about non-Native people. No matter how engaging and innovative your Native American Heritage Month lesson was, if it treated Native history as an add-on, it will only continue to center mainstream curriculum as normal and Native education as supplemental.

For millions of Native people, Native American education is foundational, not supplemental. Native knowledge, culture, and ways of being are stewarded and passed carefully across generations as they have been since time immemorial. And yet this is almost invisible to most non-Native people.

At River Ridge High School in Lacey, Wash., we created a unique three-course Native-studies program that earns students (both Native and non-Native) high school and university credit and is integrated with Native-language instruction. The philosophies and theories of our work are complex and connected to peoples and to their lands. We get asked frequently to share our curriculum, which is a request we often can’t fulfill. Our curriculum is a living entity that grows and changes with our faculty and students. We don’t do special projects for Native American Heritage Month and we don’t have specific course texts to refer to. The program is grounded in Native teaching frameworks that are not easily explained over an email.

This kind of response can feel defeating to non-Native educators who want a place to begin. But there isn’t a neat shortcut to finding the history and culture that reflect a Native perspective rather than the colonizing mentality of Euro-American settlers. Non-Native teachers must learn to see and understand things differently. Terms like “decolonizing” come up a lot in education, but they are rarely tied to meaningful educational change.

This may seem like a lot to unpack. But the most basic element is readily accessible: Make Native voices and perspectives central to your lessons.

Any educator can play a role in ending public education’s long history of miseducation and erasure of Native peoples.

You don’t need to “indigenize” everything all at once. Sometimes, it’s tempting to start with a monumental gesture, like modifying state policy or starting a large-scale environmental project with a local tribe. But it is important to understand where you are positioned—are you, for instance, a white teacher in a school system that has long catered to white students?—when you begin. Starting with small, intentional, and informed actions will build a foundation that can grow over time.

As an educator, start by learning on whose traditional lands you live, work, and play. What treaties, if any, cover the area you live in? If no tribes currently exist in your area, learn why. Bring those same sets of questions into your school, assess what sort of Native education supports may exist in your district, and build a relationship with Native people or with a Native organization. If you have Native students, ask: Who are they, and what tribal citizenships do they hold? Ask: What have or haven’t you and other educators learned about Native peoples and why?

Students in Civics through Native Perspectives at River Ridge High School in December 2022.

Never before have there been more resources to support educators in their work toward desettling, but resources need to come from Native peoples. If your state has a tribal history and sovereignty curriculum, begin with that. Investigate what the National Indian Education Association and the National Museum of the American Indian have to offer.

further reading

If you’re ready to go further than that, pick up “Land as Pedagogy” by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg), “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” by Tuck (Unangax̂) and Yang, Indian Education for All by John P. Hopkins (Crow Creek Lakota), An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Cherokee), or The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer (Ojibwe).

Sometimes, educators confess that they’re afraid they’ll do something wrong. Doing nothing is doing harm. We encourage educators to teach with Native peoples and not just about them. Model community building. Challenge yourself to find a tribal leader, scientist, lawyer, teacher, or entrepreneur. Our program has welcomed dozens of Native speakers from over 20 tribes along with their allies. Our invitees have included Native legislators, authors, roboticists, and students.

Whether you have a large Native-student population or somehow have none, better teaching about and with Native peoples improves education, builds healthier communities, increases Native visibility, and creates broad opportunities for all students. Any educator can play a role in ending public education’s long history of miseducation and erasure of Native peoples.

This work isn’t comfortable, and it shouldn’t be. If educators who occupy Indigenous lands want to do better than teach the same over-stereotyped lessons in November, they must come to terms with their positionality in public education. Intentional study and community building with Native people will challenge educators to see the very real, modern presence and contribution of Native peoples. Educators will discover long-standing biases that erase or minimize Native presence and learning in public education.

Real change requires that educators acknowledge their role in perpetuating and privileging the narratives and teaching approaches of Euro-American settlers. Real movement toward desettling and decolonizing education starts with small choices—choices that are grounded in where you are, rooted in your community, and connected to the space you occupy as part of the educational system.

Editor’s Note: This is one of a short series of opinion essays reflecting on Native American Heritage Month.

See Also

Illustration of a Navajo caregiver braiding a child's hair; they are surrounded by people, demonstrating that Natives Americans maintain their strong traditions, even as they exist within a diverse community.
Leah Tiare Smith (Navajo) for Education Week. She is the author's niece.
Social Studies Opinion 'We Exist': How to Learn About Native Americans Through Native Lenses
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