Knowledge, Empathy and Listening

Guest blogger: Carol Bliss Quinn, Bagley Jr/Sr High School

Intolerance is a daily experience. People are intolerant of religious, cultural, linguistic, sexual orientation, and every other difference between peoples of various cultures living together in our country. In my opinion this can be especially difficult for Native American students.

Having taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school and now in a public school I have seen a substantial change in how we as educators approach the teaching of significant people and events from American Indian history. The issue remains however that most people in the mainstream culture are not changing as fast as we are. Students are still struggling with how do they personally feel connected to the events of the past and what relevance does that have to their daily lives.

Case in point, two students were working on a history day project for this year’s competition. Both are from mixed race backgrounds of Native American and white. I have worked closely with these girls for a couple years and I have seen them struggle with the events their ancestors on both sides suffered from and caused to occur. They embraced a topic of local history because even though they have lived here their entire lives, they were unfamiliar with the historical significance right in their backyard. They spoke with both non-Native and Native American experts on their topic and with the understanding that you can ask for information but sometimes events are still too painful to want to discuss, they went after the primary documents behind their event. Although they were content just to make it to the state competition, they were pleased with themselves for having dug deep enough and risked enough to learn the truth about an event that had sadness attached. Sadness, anger, frustration, hopelessness and every emotion in between was experienced as we drove to sites and visited where men had died and people had suffered. Their internal struggle is something I will never be able to completely understand. But I can offer empathy, a patience to listen and the skills to encourage them to find resilience in the aftermath of the event. Sometimes that is all we have as educators to offer.

Much of the research on historic trauma is hard to understand. Hard to place yourself in the historical role that we are usually unwilling to embrace. Thoughts of “my ancestors were immigrants, I’m not responsible for the boarding schools” etc.  We are taught to give kids a personal connection to the topic, the subject and the content. When it comes to tragic local Native American topics, let your heart lead you. Sometimes the truth is waiting to be uncovered. Sometimes the truth is buried for a reason and there are people unwilling or unable to discuss events personal and hurtful to themselves. Sometimes the past needs to stay buried… at least for now.

From a practical standpoint I would suggest the following:

Teach students the difference between massacre, battle, fight, skirmish and attack. Teach the difference between first peoples, Native peoples, Native Americans, American Indians, etc.

Teach the difference between a tribe, a clan, a reservation and a band.

Teach about sovereignty and dispel the rumors that every Native American gets a big check from the casinos.

Teach about the hunting and treaty rights struggles.

They hear these words in history yet do not understand the significance each has in describing the cultures. Insert significant people and events affecting Native peoples in each unit you teach. The events are there. Stress the perseverance, the strength and the choices they still had in each encounter. That choice may have been holding hands on the gallows, remaining silent after the attack at Wounded Knee or the shared language of the code talkers.  Reservations are vibrant wonderful places where the people are working hard to improve the lives of their elders, their children and their people. They are financially committed to trying to improve the natural resources, the preservation of history, the continuation of indigenous languages and the survival of the culture. Good educators who teach their children and those children who are not Native that this is a culture that is growing stronger with each generation strengthen them.

Finally, I would recommend gathering pictures from every place you can stop that hold Native American history. A few years ago I was lucky enough to tour the Little Big Horn National Battlefield as part of an educational opportunity. I took photos of the red/brown headstones that were there for the Native Americans who had died there. I also gathered photos of the landscape, the tour packet and photos of tombstones of the cavalry under Custer who died there. It went into my curriculum, and I would show the kids the changes the U.S. government was taking to make sure that both sides of this event had tombstones to honor their dead. One very quiet girl in my class asked me if I would allow her to bring a picture home to her Grandmother. I said sure and the next day she returned with the photo and the story of how that was the tombstone of her great-great Uncle. She connected not only with her own story, but her Grandmother’s story. Needless to say I gave her the photo. You will never know what lives you touch just by gathering information.

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Trying to Provide Perspective, Context and Other Pet Peeves

Guest blogger: Ron Hustvedt, Jr., Salk Middle School (Elk River)

The more I teach, the more I find myself working with students to understand the complexities and depth of subjects we learn about rather than just trying to hit a lot of different things. That definitely has positives and negatives associated with it, and it’s something I’ve always felt like I did, but with almost 20 years of experience behind me, I feel like I’m really just beginning to understand how to do it well.

That’s always a self-deprecating thing to wonder about: if I’m just getting it now, what was I like back in the day? So I have a few considerations for other teachers to ponder that are solely based upon my ongoing a-ha moments. Most of those a-ha moments come from two sources (I take little credit for any great discoveries of my own): many of the great educational philosophers and writers who publish articles and books I enjoy reading; and, the written reflections of my own students who provide me with the greatest insights into my successes and failures as a teacher.

The focus of these insights will center around how I provide educational opportunities for students to learn about American Indian history both in a 7th grade U.S. Studies classroom and in a 6th grade Minnesota Studies classroom. Anybody who teaches U.S. History should be able to relate to this in some fashion.

Perspective and Context

Is there really a difference between those two words? I feel as if maybe I’m being redundant. There is a wealth of writing out there about the need and value of teaching perspective and context, but doing so requires one thing more than anything else: a teacher who is constantly trying to learn about it all on their own. Hopefully we all tell our students that they can never know everything about a topic, and hopefully we not only encourage them to be lifelong learners but model that as well.

One of the ways I’ve been able to learn the most is by having my students participate in National History Day. If you ever want to be made aware of all the things you never learned, have 150 of your students select their own topics. But talk about modeling lifelong learning, they enjoy teaching me new things, and I enjoy helping them dig for things which usually means I have to try to learn about it more myself. This is where most of my a-ha moments have come from, in trying to help students understand perspective and context of their own topics. It’s uncanny how many times I have learned something while helping a student that I was able to fold into class the next day.

Even if you don’t have your students participate in NHD, you can experience the same results if you have them conduct their own inquiries and if you dig around for good primary sources to use in class. Better yet, do all the above!

Of, by, and for the people

My first a-ha that’s transformed my teaching comes in the spirit of the Gettysburg Address. If we truly believe in those iconic words by Abraham Lincoln, then we must also own what that means when we talk about the actions of the U.S. government. When teaching about “Indian Policy” throughout United States history, there are plenty of negative things to talk about, but seldom does the blame/credit go to anybody else than the ambiguous federal government. I often read in books, commentaries and articles people talking about, “This is how the U.S. government treated American Indians…” and it heaps it all on the government, ignoring the people who elected, supported, and allowed that to happen. It’s like letting the Germans off the hook for the actions of the Nazis. Let’s just be honest with students, and each other, in stating that the U.S. government carried out the actions of those who wanted American Indians to just go away through assimilation, war or by isolation. Those actions were supported by a majority of the population who were largely indifferent to the treatment of American Indians.

But with that needs to come a sensitivity as well. When I took an American Indian studies class at South High School as a senior back in 1993, I remember the teacher, who was himself active in the American Indian Movement, telling us that he doesn’t blame any of us for what happened and he doesn’t blame our families–he acknowledged the fact that most of our families had nothing to do with it since they came here after most of the damage was done. He was very clear, however, in telling us that it’s not about punishing people of today for what happened, but trying to move forward in the most reconciliatory way possible. You can’t undo wrongs from the past, but you can learn and you can build. That’s our job as teachers, to expose students to the stories of the past and let them know what happened, not to paint the lines of good guys and bad guys but to be able to know what you are seeing when you look at the world around you.

Address complexities

I’m very proud that my 6th grade Minnesota Studies students can tell me that Little Crow and Henry Sibley are complex people from history. They know that both men did things in their lives to be proud of and both did things to be ashamed of, and that history judges them differently over time depending on the evidence that’s examined. I love that my kids realize that they themselves are complex people. We are all much more like Batman than Superman in that we are complex, multi-faceted, sometimes good, sometimes bad, and that our ideals are often compromised by the limitations of our time. The classic case of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson–great men who fought for freedom all while owning slaves. This conversation comes up in so many places because while we celebrate Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., for getting arrested standing up for what they believe in, when at the time those arrests were not seen the same by many, including leaders of the NAACP.

Simply talking with students about their own lives helps them understand these complexities. None of our students are all good and none of them are all bad. In their friendships, they learn to deal with shortcomings of others and their friends learn to put up with theirs. These people from history are not fictional characters, they are people just like us who are prone to the same faults and quirks. Helping students see those character traits, helping students see the multifaceted layers within seemingly simple historical events, gives them the opportunity to apply that to modern issues.

You don’t have to get into every complexity with students, but letting them see the chaos amongst the orderly narrative of a history book, definitely helps them achieve a deeper understanding of history and our modern world.

A Great Year at American Indian Magnet School

Guest blogger: Laura Czaplewski, American Indian Magnet School

It has been an exciting year at American Indian Magnet school full of amazing projects done by my students.  One of the courses that I have a privilege to teach is 6th grade Minnesota Studies through a Native Perspective.  It is my charge to embed Native history throughout all the eras and events that we learn about in this class.  I am so impressed with the work my young scholars have engaged in this year, and I would like to share some of the work with all of you. I would like to invite everyone to attend our end of the year Wacipi (powwow) on June 3. We have grand entries in the afternoon and in the evening.  I am unsure of the times right now, but I will respond to this blog later if anyone is interested.  Our address is 1075 E. 3rd Street St. Paul, MN 55106.

History Day Projects

First, we had a group of young men create a documentary about the Bdote for their History Day project and were selected as State finalists.  They were able to visit Fort Snelling State park and hike the area.  While they were there, they learned about the camp that the Dakota were forced to live in after the U.S.-Dakota War.  They learned about the Mdewakanton creation story earlier in the year in class, and were eager to find out everything they could about this sacred area. See “What Does Justice Look Like? : The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland.” by Waziyatawin, Ph.D.

We also have a 7th grade student who created an exhibit board about the Ojibwe Migration Story that will be displayed in the Madeline Island Museum this summer, so if you are in the area please check it out!

lost bird HD projectMy students created projects about the History of La Crosse, Ojibwe Activist and Singer Anne Humphrey, Little Crow, and Zintkala Nuni-Lost Bird of Wounded Knee .  Zitkala Nuni’s story is one of tragedy.  She was an infant and survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre; she was found three days after, frozen to the ground in her mother’s blood under her body.  A U.S. Colonel named Leonard Colby claimed her as a souvenir and brought her home to be raised by his suffragist wife Clara Colby. Lost Bird, who struggled to find acceptance in both Native and Non-Native culture, was often ill due to lack of a resistance to diseases, encountered extreme poverty, was exploited in silent films and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and died at age 29. She was buried in California, but later exhumed and laid to rest at the Wounded Knee Cemetery in South Dakota.  The young scholars that did this project learned that Native Adoption into Non-Native families is very common.  They learned that laws like ICWA Indian Child Welfare Act attempt to protect Native children by keeping them with relatives or members of their community if they are placed in foster care or adopted.

Other Exciting Projects

Norval Morriseau inspired Clan Animals

Students participated in an Art project where they learned about the Ojibwe Clan system. They learned the meaning behind each animal and the responsibility that is associated with being from a particular clan. Some great resources available that are often free for teachers come from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.  We also looked at the artwork of Ojibwe artist Norval Morriseau, and created clan animals inspired by his style of art. He shows the spirit of his drawing by showing what is inside of a human or animal.

clan animals

Minnesota Reservation Webquests (Why Treaties Matter)

One of our units this year was all about why treaties matter today, and students learned the history behind each reservation in Minnesota.  They also had an opportunity to explore Reservation websites and see what these communities are doing today.  Many students discovered information about Native-run fisheries, wild rice companies, and natural resource and wildlife preservation organizations.

Building a Wigwam for Pre-K Students

Pictured below is a wigwam made from willow branches by AVID students for our Pre-K class as a space for reading.

student wigwam

Every year we take our kids to Harding Senior High to experience a story-telling event.  This year we had the privilege to listen to local Native hip hop artists Tall Paul and Native Son.  It was a blast.  Here is a link to one of the videos by one the artists: Native Son-Red Power.