A Historical Mirror: Reflecting on Identity

Guest blogger: Kara Redding, St. Paul Preparatory School

Since the first meeting of our cohort, I’ve been reflecting a lot about the cultures in the U.S.A. that divide us. I’ve especially been thinking about white privilege and the racial conflicts that persist in our nation to this day. When I teach history, I try to make sure that I’m telling stories from as many points of view as I can. I try to break down traditional stories and the American exceptionalism narrative, showing my students that this nation was built by people from every race, color, and creed.

Last year, I had an experience that really shook me. A student approached me after we had done a mock trial activity putting the Colorado volunteers on trial for the Sand Creek Massacre. This student is a European American – not just racially, but ethnically as her mother was born in Europe. She told me that she felt terrible about all the things white people had done to minority groups throughout U.S. history. She felt that white guilt that I’m certain most white people have encountered in their lives – whether they allowed themselves to feel it or rejected it. And I didn’t know what to say because I knew exactly how she felt.

My grandfather grew up in South Dakota in an English-American family that had migrated west. My great-grandfather was a cowboy, a hired hand who travelled to where work was available. Early in my grandfather’s childhood, my great-grandparents divorced and my great-grandmother remarried. She and her new husband purchased property in the Black Hills, a little more than thirty years after the Massacre at Wounded Knee ended what were known as the Indian Wars. This property, a small plot in what is now a ghost town called Mystic, is still under the stewardship of my extended family which formed a society to maintain the property. The house and all the out-buildings are historical landmarks, down to the outhouse. You can visit our property as a tourist during the summer and if one of my family members is there, we will chat with you about the history of the place. As a child, I grew up proud of my family’s heritage. But when I took American Indian History for my teacher licensure, that pride turned to shame as I learned about all the sacrifices that were made to create the opportunity for my family to buy that property. It belongs to us now, to this day, and I continue to benefit from it, at the continued expense of dispossessed native groups. Whenever I think about Mystic, I struggle to imagine what I might do to repair the violent history that my family benefitted from. But I don’t have the power to make decisions about the property or how it’s used – it is protected under the historical registry and by the extended Redding family that maintains it. That leaves me feeling just as helpless as I imagine my student felt.

The reason I wanted to tell this story here is because as much as we break down the stories of history to understand all points of view, many of us don’t break down who our students relate to. I remember in my teacher training I was always being reminded to put up “mirrors” for my students, so they could see people who look like them in my instruction of history, feel the impact that their ancestors have made on our history. But when I tell the story of Little Bighorn, the mirror my white students look into reflects Custer. When we put the Colorado volunteers on trial for the Sand Creek Massacre, the mirror shows them Colonel Chivington. Of course I cannot avoid telling these stories for fear that some of my students will feel shame on hearing them. But I feel compelled to find some sort of solution to make all students feel represented in a story.

Rather than encouraging my students to connect to the people who look like them, to connect with those who share their cultural backgrounds, I try to introduce American heritage as a political one, not an ethnic one. The United States of America was founded on core values like liberty, equality, and democracy. When my student came to me, expressing her feelings of shame and guilt, I told her that the true Americans in our story were not the people in power. They were not the people who shared her ethnicity or race. Her American heroes are the people who fought for the values we still revere today. We share more of our identity with Chief Joseph than with generals of the U.S. cavalry, because we believe in liberty in the way he defined it: “Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself.”

I admit that I feel very apprehensive to submit this blog post because I don’t want to offend anyone or have them think poorly of me. It’s a common story: a privileged person who feels guilty about the role of her ancestors in history. But I think that we all have students in our classrooms that identify with their European-American heritage, who will look into the mirror and see someone who was hateful or who used their power in terrible, violent, oppressive ways, and we need to break that down for them. It’s important to encourage that empathy and that guilt has a role to play, but we need to help students deconstruct it and cope with it rather than leaving them to negotiate those feelings alone.

One thought on “A Historical Mirror: Reflecting on Identity

  1. This was beautifully written. I am teaching 7th graders about the removal on Native Americans right now during Manifest Destiny and so many of them cannot comprehend why land was taken from these people. It is hard to show justification of our government’s actions when we are hurting many in the process. A handful of my students told me they were embarrassed of the US’s actions and cannot believe we did that. They too were experiencing this ‘guilt’. I think it is great when we are able to get our students to express emotion through learning but it also a very difficult and delicate topic to grasp and discuss.


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