University of Oklahoma Prof: Native History Is American History

Tanya H. Lee

In the place where the Trail of Tears ended after an estimated 4,000 American Indians had died from hunger, exposure and disease during the forced removal of tribes from the Southeastern U.S. to west of the Mississippi River, a state legislator has dragged Oklahomans into the controversy over the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam.

State Rep. Dan Fisher, R-District 60, introduced legislation that would have replaced AP history with curriculum developed by the state that included specified historical texts including “founding documents of the United States that contributed to the foundation or maintenance of the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism.”

David Wrobel, Merrick Chair of Western History at the University of Oklahoma, says in response to Fisher’s position, “The idea of American exceptionalism is deeply connected to the mid-19th century idea of Manifest Destiny…. But it’s important to bear in mind that Manifest Destiny developed as a justification for American expansion…. To accept it as the explanation for American development, to say as historians that God favors one nation over other nations…would be to write history on faith rather than engage in historical analysis.”

Amanda Cobb-Greetham, Chickasaw, director of Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, has another take on the term, “In its classic form, American exceptionalism refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation because of the principles and beliefs on which it was founded, democratic ideals of individual liberty, freedom, justice, equality. To my mind, if we’re exceptional, it’s because we continue to strive for those ideals, not because we have met them in every circumstance. We haven’t.”

Wrobel has taken the lead in drafting a position on the APUSH that was presented to Oklahoma Association of Professional Historians and Oklahoma Phi Alpha Theta chapter at their annual meeting last week. The gist of the position is, “As professional historians in the state of Oklahoma we understand how incredibly important AP history is…. If you take away what is a national measure of excellence…you would disadvantage Oklahoma students as they apply for admission to universities whether in Oklahoma or in other states.

“The second thing is that all the feedback we have on AP history is pretty much consistent. People who’ve done AP history say that it enhances their content knowledge of American history, it enhances their understanding of the complexities of American history and it augments their appreciation of their role as citizens.” The resolution is being sent to the organizations’ members for a vote.

In defense of teaching a non-expurgated version of American history, Cobb-Greetham says, “History is what history is. And facts matter. It is critically important that all of our students at every level have full understanding of the complexity of history and how that history has shaped and impacted who we are and where we are today.”

After meeting widespread criticism, Fisher withdrew his legislation as part of a compromise whereby Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister reportedly would help revise the bill. However, Phil Bacharach, executive director of communications for the State Department of Education, told ICTMN in an email, “We will respectfully decline the opportunity to speak on Rep. Fisher's bill. It did not last long in the legislative process, and it was never part of Supt. Hofmeister's agenda to improve education in Oklahoma.”

C. Blue Clark, instructor of law at the Oklahoma City University School of Law and a professor of history at the university is Muskogee Creek. He says, Fisher’s “bill was all that standard pioneer, settler, out on the raw frontier, patriot exceptionalism tamed a raw wilderness, and, speaking as an Indian, it’s the same old, same old drum role. On the question of whether the bill has life left in it, Clark says, “I think it may well come back. This is a conservative state and this is a conservative era. It could easily come back, perhaps in a slightly different form.”

But, Cobb-Greetham maintains it is important for people to recognize, “This is Oklahoma and it was once Indian territory. American Indian history is part of the fabric of the state of Oklahoma and who we are today…therefore all of that history is American history.”

Rep. Fisher had not responded to requests for an interview at press time.


Sampling AP History

Sample question from the AP United States History Practice Exam released by the College Board:

“[W]e have in [United States history] a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion. Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West. … In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave —the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”

Frederick Jackson Turner, historian, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” 1893


“[T]he history of the West is a study of a place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences. … Deemphasize the frontier and its supposed end, conceive of the West as a place and not a process, and Western American history has a new look. First, the American West was an important meeting ground, the point where Indian America, Latin America, Anglo-America, Afro-America, and Asia intersected. … Second, the workings of conquest tied these diverse groups into the same story. Happily or not, minorities and majorities occupied a common ground. Conquest basically involved the drawing of lines on a map, the definition and allocation of ownership (personal, tribal, corporate, state, federal, and international), and the evolution of land from matter to property.”

Patricia Nelson Limerick, historian, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, 1987


3. Using the excerpts above, answer parts a, b, and c.

a) Briefly explain ONE major difference between Turner’s and Limerick’s interpretations.

b) Briefly explain how someone supporting Turner’s interpretation could use ONE piece of evidence from the period between 1865 and 1898 not directly mentioned in the excerpt.

c) Briefly explain how someone supporting Limerick’s interpretation could use ONE piece of evidence from the period between 1865 and 1898 not directly mentioned in the excerpt.

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