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Making Genocide Real for Students

Some days I leave my classroom unsure that what I have taught has any real effect on my students, but then there are days like today. Today, we revisited the era of the Indian Removal Act and specifically the impact that President Andrew Jackson and the IRA had on the indigenous people of the southeastern region of the United States. At the end of the lecture, I shared a dramatic segment of a documentary which gave a powerful and visual representation of what the Trail of Tears really was and is…the dreadful “G” word, genocide, that we as “American citizens” really don’t want to be associated with. Historical accounts estimate that over 5000 people perished during that single initiative, and even conservative estimates have to acknowledge that at least 4,000 Native Americans died—more than the tragic death toll of 9-11.

The visual that my students was left with was described from an actual written account by a New Englander who observed a woman carrying her dying baby in her arms. And as many times as I’ve lectured and discussed the difficult topic, as a Native person, and as a mother, it never gets easier. In fact it gets harder because the more experience I gain in my life, the more I realize how precious life is and how difficult it must have been to live as an indigenous person during that time period. Yes, we still live in a violent world, but we don’t live with the same threats as our forefathers did. We deal with “micro-aggressions” and “stereotypes” and yes, racism, but to ponder a day and time when there was such indifference to dead or dying children. Just flip the page of your social studies book and move on.

It’s a painful part of our collective history and even after 170 or 180 years, it’s a loss and hurt that real people can still feel and relate to. I always remind my students that learning a more whole American history that includes the indigenous perspective isn’t a means to create sympathetic non-Indian people. Moreover it’s the only way to educate and result in an informed people as a whole because after all most American Indian children are public school educated with the rest of mainstream America.

Today, I could tell from the faces on all types of students, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or gender, that for some of them it was the first time that they actually reflected and took a moment to acknowledge the human experiences that occurred during the Indian Removal Era. It’s not just a story. It happened…in our not so distant past. These topics are worthy of being taught and deserve to be acknowledged by all.

We, as educators, can’t “protect” our students from our history, nor should we gloss over complicated and difficult subject matter. I believe that students can “handle” more than we give them credit for and they want to learn the truth. Many times I’ve encountered students that are angered that some of the Native history THAT IS American History is new information to them. My students have a variety of reactions to the information and history they learn about in my classes. Many want to know why they are finally learning about this now at the college level. Some are even angered that they weren’t taught a truer history…and that goes for both non-Native and Native students alike. Indigenous American perspectives are not only for ethnic studies programs at the post-secondary level. Our inclusive histories are valued and worthy of teaching at all levels. As we push forward for building awareness about Columbus and the catastrophic effects of first European contact with indigenous people of the Americas, our struggle continues. More inclusive histories can only bring about more informed citizens later. Some say that the civil rights era ended in the 1960s, but for Native Americans, our civil rights movement is now.

Dr. Toni Tsatoke (Kiowa) is a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma in the Native American Languages Program and the Native American Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences.