Looking at the Whole Picture

Che-na-wah
Che-na-wah-Weitch-ah-wah. Yurok woman, 1916. Library of Congress.

Guest blogger: Katie Hambrock

How do we look at a painting?  Do we focus on just the colors, the “actors” in the center?  Or do we analyze, observe and extrapolate information regarding a tree in the background, water in the foreground that might give us clues as to what is really going on?

As many of us have probably observed in our own classrooms (as teachers and students), history that is popularly taught is that of the upper class white male.  Occasionally we stumble onto letters, drawings, diaries that belong to a middle class white male or his equally middle class white wife.  Where does that leave the rest of the picture?  

When I started this cohort, I had very limited knowledge on Native American culture in general, let alone the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples that lived in Minnesota long before the rest of us came along.  In digging for information for students to help create the “whole picture”, rather than just the main players, I found Daughters of Copper Woman by Ann Cameron.  Cameron focuses on the stories of Native women, but on the Pacific Northwest.  While these are not stories native to Minnesota, I feel that they can be used to help fill in the blanks for students about other minority groups.  The creation story, which is featured first, sounds similar to many native groups about a tortoise that rises out of the water to form land with its back; everyone lives on that shell.

To help students connect with this story, we can very easily ask them to identify their own stories within their families about how something came to be.  We can pull apart stories of other countries, other native groups, and see what is similar and different.  But in order to really have kids understand the big picture, we must first give them the tools.  Show empathy; know that just because one perspective is shown doesn’t mean it’s the only right answer; question what they see.  By evaluating the context, the time, ultimately students will slowly see the whole picture.

We also need to teach students about the author or source.  In prints by Edward Curtis, Native portraits are highly stylized into what Curtis thought would sell best, as well as what the American public thought native peoples should look like. Bias plays a huge part into what we have grown up with as the “correct” image of native peoples, versus what the reality is.  Breaking down that barrier will help students to be more aware of those around them, and to examine their own biases- which will hopefully lead to better relationships in class and those around them.

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