ICMN asked American Indian college professors for their thoughts on the controversy over the revision of the AP U.S. History exam and accompanying curriculum. The rapid responses to our interview requests and educators’ eagerness to talk about this issue indicate that the teaching of U.S. history as it relates to Native Americans is something they believe is of supreme importance not only to the past, but to the future of this country. Here are excerpts from five professors’ comments.
Julia Good Fox
Good Fox, Pawnee, interim dean of natural and social sciences at Haskell Indian Nations University, explained how the concept of American exceptionalism, so vehemently promoted by those who object to the new exam, entered the discourse. “American exceptionalism is a particular political, cultural ideology that’s been used to construct a particular type of nationalism or a particular type of U.S. identity. It’s important to teach American exceptionalism in the context of ‘This is a philosophy that has been important at times in U.S. history’ instead of teaching it as a fact. American exceptionalism has been socially constructed to justify anti-Indian policies, particularly during the 19th century.”
What history means is another topic that several professors talked about. Good Fox says, “When I was looking at the APUSH and their Framework and Curriculum, it was very interesting that people are continuing to argue about the role of history. For me it’s really not the history itself that we’re discussing. What we’re looking at is the historiography, the way that history is put together, the editing of it, what belongs in our collective memory…. It’s really hard for me to think that people are out there who would try to deny some of the things that happened in our country.”
Lomawaima, Mvskoke/Creek Nation, professor of justice and social inquiry and distinguished scholar in indigenous education at Arizona State University’s Center for Indian Education, says of American exceptionalism, “It’s not [what] proponents often believe—it’s not something that’s grounded in historic fact or reality. It’s an ideological position of settlers in a settler colonial society where the foundation of the nation rests on dispossessing Native peoples of their lands. That claim to land is at the basis of all of this.”
The implications of that are far-reaching and help explain why the response to the exam has been so frenetic. “If your claims to your national territory are suspect, that’s going to create, to put it mildly, tremendous anxiety. I think that the reactions that you’re describing to the AP exam are expressing precisely that anxiety. It’s an ideological belief that this nation was mandated by a Christian god and what we’ve inherited today rests on that legacy. So to challenge that in any way, shape or form is going to threaten the very basis of U.S. national identity. Not to mention claims to territory. That’s pretty threatening to people.”
McCarty, GF Kneller Chair in Education and Anthropology in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, has looked in detail at what students are being taught in their history classes. “I recently chaired the American Anthropology Association’s Anthropology Education Task Force, a primary charge of which was to identify where anthropology and anthropological concepts (e.g., culture, diversity, ethnicity, representation of minoritized and racialized peoples) fit in K-12 curricula, and where the gaps are.
“We reviewed a representative set of state social studies standards, which include the teaching of history. A key finding is that the above concepts are few and far between (there are some notable exceptions like New York and Montana, and Alaska and Hawai’i standards for culturally responsive education and strengthening indigenous languages). Where the concepts are present, they are often distorted and superficial. Native peoples are still found in the usual places in the standards—‘in the past’ and in the way of white settler colonial interests (‘Manifest Destiny’). Substantive consideration of tribal sovereignty, the histories of diverse Native peoples on the continent, and contemporary issues involving Native Nations, including the relationship of Native nations to state and federal governments, is lacking.”
However, says McCarty, “There are many dedicated and innovative teachers—Native and non-Native—who are augmenting and/or working around the one-size-fits all standards and curricula.”
James Riding In
Riding In, Pawnee, associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, has a different theory about what is so upsetting about the new exam. “I am concerned that what is driving this opposition to the changes in the AP history test is that there’s an ongoing demographic transition in the United States from a country of a white majority to a country of a white minority and this has created fear in many of those in the majority. The pleas for a celebratory history that talks of great white men is a reflection of that fear.”
The costs of teaching a history rooted in fear are high. “How can we come to grips, how can we make this country a better place, how can we make this country live up to its political ideals about truth, justice and even righteousness if … fantasy history is being taught? Presenting history from an accurate and comprehensive viewpoint is not a teaching of victimization. It’s about the teaching of resiliency, about the spirit of Indian people to survive and thrive as culturally and politically distinct nations. It’s about the measures that must be taken to have the United States live up to its ideals, values and beliefs.”
Speed, Chickasaw, director of Native and Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, talks about some of the other costs of teaching history badly: “What I continue to be amazed by is how much students are shocked to learn that there was this entire foundational component of American history that nobody told them about. Students in college can’t believe that they’re hearing about it for the first time. And they feel betrayed by the educational system,” she says.
“There’s the tradition that the role of teaching history is to make patriotic citizens. It’s wrong-headed from my perspective. The role of high school education is to create thinking adults who can fully participate in a democratic society. But in order to do that they need to know their history. Pretending that nothing bad ever happens, that our country has never done anything bad, only creates an ignorant population that is very likely to fall into the same problematic perspective. So that’s one issue.
“The other issue is the assumption that if you teach people the truth about American history with Native Americans, that that will take away from their ability to be patriotic. Clearly people making this assumption don’t know any Native Americans because Native Americans who have a very good idea of the history of this country are some of the most patriotic people I know.”
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This story was originally published November 2, 2014.