Adding Depth and Questioning Stereotypes

Guest blogger: Gabe Meerts, Prairie Creek Community School, Northfield

I teach a class of 4th and 5th graders. I have been hesitant to approach American Indian History because I knew how I didn’t want to teach it: Battles, treaties, and impediments to the U.S.’s Manifest Destiny plus a paragraph each about Pocahontas and Sacajawea. This is how I was taught in school which also means that I don’t have much more of a background to comfortably do better.

My goals for this unit were for students to have a general understanding of American Indian History and culture but I also wanted to be more active in addressing stereotypes and misconceptions.

I was struck by a quote in A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who said, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I had seen her TED talk that this quote came from years ago but, like so many things, I needed to hear it again to give me perspective on how to approach this unit.

I had gone in wanting to fight stereotypes but realized what I needed to do was broaden understanding and show the diversity and complexity when considering American Indian History so that the students would see for themselves the shallowness of certain stereotypes.

This gave me stronger focus and confidence to address this subject. We started the unit with what questions the students had and what they were interested in learning. It gave me a good sense of their questions and current understanding that I could return to as we progressed. It also helps show the students that they are active participants in this learning and hopefully gain their buy-in. The questions created were in line with my expectations and helped me know their vocabulary in the area.

I wanted the students to understand that we aren’t just talking about something that started in 1492 then mostly ended in the 1800’s. I chose Fatty Legs by Christy Jordon-Fenton as a read-aloud book for the class. It takes place in the 1940’s from the perspective of an Inuvialuit girl who dreams of learning to read and doesn’t understand why the rest of her family doesn’t want her to go to the Canadian residential school. It’s a true story of her experience (it’s Jordon-Fenton’s mother-in-law) and very accessible to my students in explaining the harsh realities of Canada’s (and easily applied to the United State’s) role in actively erasing native culture and language. It describes her traditional living and how it had adjusted to take their goods to the trading post by schooner, how she noticed differences between hers and other tribes in that region, and how her family responded to nature in more realistic examples than I have found in other student-level literature. My class has a good foundation of Ojibwe knowledge so it is also a great source to compare the Inuvialuit and Ojibwe.

I wanted to also help the students understand that American Indian culture (and American Indians!) isn’t only in the past. I had an early assignment be for the students to draw a picture of an American Indian family. I shared with the students Matika Wilbur’s Project 562 and they LOVED all the pictures. There were surprises and good discussions based on the different pictures. This was helpful for their understanding but, I realized, it was also a great format to let the students become more comfortable discussing stereotypes and sensitive topics. Too often, we shy away or learn to not talk about racism, stereotypes, and expectations. Later in the unit, I had the students draw a second American Indian family with an emphasis on differences between it and their first drawing including either labels or a paragraph explaining them.

We have integrated a beading project and learned different games both in P.E. and in the classroom.

The last piece I wanted to share with the students was a perspective of time. I made an effort to balance out battles with cultural events but still most of our known history is after European immigration. I decided I would try to let them understand this by emphasizing the physical space of the timeline. I gave the students pieces of paper with times and dates of major events in American Indian history (it was sad but not unexpected to see one of the first Google hits for my search had the first date as 1492). In partners, they taped the events onto the walls of the classroom to create a timeline as well as wrote questions they had about the events. We had discussions about the events but also considered the scale. The students eventually calculated that if they had a scale of 200 years for each meter. European interaction easily fit along one wall of our classroom but the timeline continued out of the room, down the stairs and down that hallway all the way to the edge of our gym to represent 10,000 BCE. We are still constructing this as well as our understanding but I will make sure to let them know that is the shortest estimated time period and that it could be as much as twice that (with a walk out into our field with a metric measuring wheel).

This is my first time teaching American Indian History. I’ve felt empowered with this approach. The students have stayed interested and enthusiastically tied in what they’ve learned from a Birchbark House reading group or the stories and lessons from the 5th grade trip to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. My hope is that it’s a sign they will continue to take in the information around them to create a rich understanding of American Indian History and not let one story become the only story.


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