Pilgrims and Indians
Penn State University
A staggering 87 percent of references to American Indians in all 50 states’ academic standards portray them in a pre-1900 context.

'All Indians Are Dead?' At Least That’s What Most Schools Teach Children

Alysa Landry

It’s time to break out the construction paper and synthetic feathers.

Students in schools across the country this month will learn about the first Thanksgiving, perpetuating a fairy tale about struggling pilgrims and the friendly Indians who shared a harvest banquet. This usually follows Columbus Day instruction that is similarly celebratory.

But for the vast majority of elementary and secondary students, lessons like these may be the only time they learn about American Indians at all. A staggering 87 percent of references to American Indians in all 50 states’ academic standards portray them in a pre-1900 context.

That means students are graduating from high school without even basic knowledge of contemporary Native challenges or culture, said Sarah Shear, associate professor of social studies education at Pennsylvania State University in Altoona. Shear, who this year earned a PhD in learning, teaching and curriculum from the University of Missouri, spent two years examining state-mandated U.S. history standards, coding each state six times in an effort to understand what students are learning about Natives.

The project began when Shear was teaching an undergraduate class in multi-cultural education. When she asked what students knew about America’s indigenous people, hands shot into the air.

“What they told me is that they learned about Thanksgiving and Columbus Day,” she said. “Every once in a while a student would mention something about the Trail of Tears. It was incredibly frustrating. They were coming to college believing that all Indians are dead.”

Shear partnered with other researchers to analyze states’ academic standards, lengthy documents that dictate what topics teachers should emphasize, including names of important people, dates, events and concepts. Textbook authors often tailor materials to meet those standards.

The study revealed a shameful lack of meaningful Native content, Shear said.

“All of the states are teaching that there were civil ways to end problems and that the Indian problem was dealt with nicely,” she said. “They’re teaching that this is what needed to happen in order for the United States to become the United States. The conflict had to be dealt with in order to manifest destiny. The relationship with Indians was a means to an end.”

The study also revealed that all 50 states lack any content about current Native events or challenges.

“Nothing about treaties, land rights, water rights,” Shear said. “Nothing about the fact that tribes are still fighting to be recognized and determine sovereignty.”

In some states, politics plays a huge role in determining academic standards, Shear said. Politicians, not educators, decide the “grand story” that teachers will tell students. In other states, standards may be simply—and shockingly—out of date. Either way, Shear said, the effect is a white-washing of history, a focus on the Euro-American story that is so narrow there’s no room for an indigenous narrative.

While state standards highlight topics that must be covered in the classroom, teachers still have leeway to tailor lessons or add content, said Tony Castro, assistant professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri. Castro, who served as a faculty assistant to Shear’s research project, said he was disappointed with the findings.

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“This kind of curriculum, these misconceptions, all that has led to the invisibilization of indigenous people,” he said. “What we teach acts as a mirror to what we value and what we recognize as legitimate. These standards are perpetuating a misconception and are continuing to marginalize groups of people and minimize the concerns or issues those people have about being full citizens in the American democracy.”

Shear’s research is being published in an upcoming issue of Theory & Research in Social Education. Meanwhile, here’s a snapshot of her findings:

Across all the states, 87 percent of references to Natives portray them prior to 1900, with no clear vision of what happened after that.

In half of the states, no individual Natives or specific tribes are named.

Of the Natives named in standards, the most common are Sacagawea, Squanto, Sequoyah and Sitting Bill.

Only 62 Native nations are named in standards; most are mentioned by only one state. One nation, the Iroquois, is mentioned in six states.

Only four states—Arizona, Washington, Oklahoma and Kansas—include content about Indian boarding schools.

New Mexico is the only state to mention, by name, a member of the American Indian Movement.

Washington is the only state to use the word “genocide” in relation to Natives. That word is used in the standards for fifth grade U.S. history.

Nebraska textbooks portray Natives as lazy, drunk or criminal.

Ninety-percent of all manuscripts written about Native people are authored by non-Native writers.

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TsaniLK's picture
Submitted by TsaniLK on
This is News? Most Americans can't walk out their front door and state what People lived on the land before them. Immigrants and naturalized citizens know nothing of those who came before them. College History, Anthropology, and Archeology courses and studies are nearly all driven from a Eurocentric perspective. And their conclusions are almost always initially wrong because until recently they refused to take into account actual Indian History and actual Indians perspectives. This isn't surprising considering the fact that for over a century popular US culture reinvented it's History whitewashing the truth. Romanticizing the Old West and presenting an idealized White American society justifying Manifest Destiny and White Mans Burden, literally became an art form in literature and Hollywood. Nearly all of our ancestors practiced Representative Democracy, Capitalism, Gender Equality, and a balanced approach to every endeavor of life. Yet, the average American is taught these notions came from European Scholarship and or evolving enlightenment, in spite of the fact every European Nation was ruled, in one way or another, by the Divine Right of Kings. Or more laughable, from their Bible. The influence of the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy on that of the US is downplayed so much that, as the article mentions about Indians in general, isn't even taught to most students. This in spite of the fact the US Congress past a resolution recognizing that truth in 1988. Unless more Indians enter these fields and present our own scholarship about our own culture and History, we will become nothing but a forgotten People.

TalkingStone's picture
Submitted by TalkingStone on
Agreed. This is hardly news, a LOT of schoolbook history about Native Americans is dead wrong. I vividly recall when AIM broke out on the scene in the mid-70s, a lot of people said "there are still Indians?" When people learn I have some Native ancestry, i'll steer them to "Black Elk Speaks, then I have them try Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee." for a heartbreaking reality check.

arw00's picture
Submitted by arw00 on
another problem. teachers allowed to add to the lesson plans. most teachers will add what may be their own personal beliefs or old wives tales that are incorretave and have no clue about native history or culture.

chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on
really??? as long as American society can keep us invisible, all is well...and they've managed to do a damn good job of it for several HUNDREDS of years...ive pondered a solution for 60 years and come up empty handed...maybe there isn't one, and we just go on living OUR lives in the middle of all the b.s. going on around us...'our' country is so obviously not 'ours' any more... here's my thoughts on it: my heart lies on the ground you came to my country and took from me my languages, customs, beliefs all I held dear and believed to be true my relations fell under your diseases and genocides on the assumption that by ridding yourselves of us you would have free rein to re-invent and perpetuate your lifestyle from sea to shining sea for centuries you have labored under this delusionbut we hid behind the facsimilies of the new life you imposed upon us held onto all you tried to destroy in our secret selves my heart holds the scars of 500+ years of repression but, I survive!!! chahta sia hoke!!! (c)2014aiahninchiohoyo

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I work in the public schools and it's evident to me that we don't teach Native history because bullshit like, "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . " would be SEEN as bullshit instead of "great words written by great men in search of justice and equality for all." Conquerers ALWAYS write the history and they ALWAYS make themselves appear angelic.

sastri's picture
Submitted by sastri on
As an American National, I appreciate the Native American influence on my experience on this earth, in this land called America, but in this time, I feel there is something bigger going on that must come to its completion. ----> http://rights.sastri.info

metanoic's picture
Submitted by metanoic on
Schools don't teach anything after 1900 because the logistics of the sinister plan the federal government used to control the native indian population is the same plan they now use to control the modern United States. Same reason you don't learn much of anything about Prussia in public education. I find that odd since that's where our public education model, to a tee, came from. My point being, the elitists that control the USA and much of the world keep their hand close otherwise we'd all be privy to their plan and more importantly their end game. Russell Means said it best "Welcome to the Reservation".