Using American Indian Primary Sources

Guest blogger: Heidi Kloempken, Minnesota Historical Society

Lutiant letter
Letter from Lutiant LaVoye, Oct. 17, 1918. National Archives.

Jessica Ellison and I are always mining the internet and other organizations for new ways to deliver teacher professional development. A few years ago we came across the New York Historical Society’s Pizza and PD program. We came up with our own Sources and Scholars program by tacking on an hour of primary source investigation to a MNHS public program, the History Lounge. The sources we use are always based on the topic of the History Lounge program.

Our first program was December 2014, featuring Brenda Child and her new book, My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks. We were able to sit down with her before the program, and discuss the sources used in her book to tell the narrative of changing roles of American Indian men and women during the Great Depression. That meeting with Professor Child reminded us how often American Indian history tells the larger story of America. Native voices can be used at all times during lessons, not just to teach Native history. We ended up doing three activities with the teachers. The first was comparing and contrasting the U.S. Constitution with the Red Lake Constitution. The second activity compared two sources that can be used to teach a single subject, such as health concerns during and after World War I. One source was a political cartoon by Frederick Burr Opper showing how things were changing in the Progressive Era. Companies and manufacturers were shorting products, and the public was concerned for their health. The second source was a letter from Lutiant LaVoye to a friend at Haskell Institute.

The third activity was finding Lutiant LaVoye in the census records from 1910, looking at the census questions from that year, and then looking up teachers’ own house, neighborhood, or family in the released and digital census records from 1940.

In our conversation with Professor Child and doing the activities with teachers, the most popular source was Lutiant LaVoye’s letter. Her story was interesting, and her letter was funny and full of historical information. Professor Child shared her path of discovery: finding the letter, discovering Ms. LaVoye’s heritage at Red Lake, her schooling at Haskell, and her move to Washington, D.C., to be a nurse. The teacher participants enjoyed the structure of the letter, how it addressed war, flu, and being a teenager, and how easy it was to read. We weren’t able to spend much time on the census activity because we had such great conversation about the letter.

Based on the popularity of Lutiant and her letter, whenever the History Lounge is an American Indian topic, we try to promote the concept of using American Indian sources to teach U.S. or Minnesota History. Another History Lounge featured Professor Anton Treuer, so we focused on the boycott of Bemidji-area businesses in October and November 1966 by the Red Lake, Leech Lake, and White Earth Nations. This local event coincides with the Civil Rights Movement and the growth of the American Indian Movement. Our next Sources and Scholars will focus on Dakota voices after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Teachers will read letters written by Dakota men imprisoned in Davenport, Iowa.

Though we may not come across another source like the letter from Lutiant LaVoye that so perfectly covers so many topics and is fun to read, it is exciting to continue to search for sources that give voice to people not traditionally heard when teaching U.S. History.

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