Changing the Stereotypes and Mixconceptions of the American Indians

Guest Blogger: Jen Hansen, Willow Creek Intermediate School, Owatonna Minnesota.

I grew up in Iowa and moved to Minnesota the summer of my third grade year.  My grandparents lived in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  My knowledge of Native American people was very stereotypical.  I remember watching Saturday morning cartoons (10 Little Indians) and seeing images by Walt Disney of American Indians (Little Hiawatha).  I grew up thinking that all Native Americans lived in tepees, wore headdresses and leather clothing, hunted with tomahawks, bows and arrows, traveled in birch bark canoes and built totem poles.  This was what I saw on television, this is what I saw when I traveled with my family to visit my grandparents.  This is what I saw when we traveled in our home state of Minnesota and these images molded my view of the American Indian.

I am ashamed to say that my parents bought me many of those stereotypical souvenirs as a child at road side tourist shops on summer vacations.  I played with them and even dressed up as an “Indian” for Halloween.  Then as I entered high school, our mascot was the Owatonna Indian.  Again, as youth, we portrayed the American Indian Warrior as we went to sporting events and activities.  As a teenager I didn’t think about the impact this would have on the Native People and disappointingly the adult educators and parents did nothing to change these stereotypes.

I had no idea of the atrocities that the Native American people had suffered.  I had no knowledge of the beauty of their culture and language for the most part the American Indian was eradicated from the history classes in the 70’s and 80’s.  I had no idea that the American Indians had lived on the very soil that I now lived, hundreds of years before me.  I had no idea about their way of life, until I was much older and studying American Indian History at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire (1982-1987).   And I had no idea that many of the stereotypes about Native American people still existed today, until I started teaching sixth grade Minnesota Studies back in my hometown of Owatonna in 1992.   I have spent the last 25 years trying to change the stereotypical thinking of my students with all the misconceptions that they see around them, and to share with them the truth about the Native American People of Minnesota:  The Dakota and Ojibwe.

It was then that I vowed to change these images of American Indians and educate my students about the rich culture of the Native People that call Minnesota home.  I needed to share my story of ignorance with them to shed a light on the change that needed to happen.  I was fortunate enough to have a district that purchased the Northern Lights Curriculum from the Minnesota Historical Society and a one that was supportive in educating their staff.  I was part of the Teachers of American History Cohort:  Blufflands and Prairies (2006-2010) that focused on using primary sources in the social studies classrooms.  I was able to visit the Upper Sioux Agency and Lower Sioux Agencies, Jeffers Petroglyphs,  as well as the Millie Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post.  We traveled to Traverse des SiouxFort Ridgely, and Reconciliation Park in Mankato.   The Cohort had an opportunity to talk to Dakota and Ojibwe elders, to take photographs, and to hear the stories of their journey and history as a people.

Native American Political Cartoon

I need my students to know that the Ojibwe and Dakota people are still here, their story continues.  Their culture and language have been preserved by their resilience and strength. In 1994, I worked with a group of students to change the name of the Owatonna mascot from Indian to Huskie.  My students took their case to the Owatonna School Board and argued the need to change the name.  They worked together to educate the men and women of the Owatonna community about the history of the Dakota people that once lived in this part of Minnesota.  They explained that by using the name “Indian” we were not honoring them, but rather disrespecting the original people of Minnesota.  They recommended a student competition to rename the Owatonna mascot.  They captured the attention of not only the school board and community members but also many of their fellow students.  These young people saw the wrong and worked to make it right.

I am proud of the work I have done over the past 25 years, but I tell you there is still much to do.  I appreciate the opportunity to work with educators from around the state and I especially appreciate the candid comments my American Indian colleagues have shared.  I know I still have much to learn and I am anxious to do so, so that I can share this with my students.

General Resources:

Northern Lights:  The Stories of Minnesota’s Past

The Story of Minnesota’s Past by Rhoda R. Gilman

Minnesota Humanities Center

Minnesota Center for Social Studies Education

Dakota & Ojiwbe Resources:   (Bdote Memory Map) (Why Treaties Matter) (The Good Path by Thomas Peacock and Marlene Wisuri) – Ojibwe

(In a Good Way:  American Indian Studies in the Classroom)

(Lone Dog’s Winter Count) – Dakota

(A Live in Beads:  The Stories a Plains Dress Can Tell) – Dakota & Ojibwe

(American Indian View on Thanksgiving)



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