AP Photo/Ben Birchall

New AP US History Exam Perpetuates Lies About Native Americans

Tanya H. Lee

New AP US History Exam Perpetuates Lies About Native Americans  

Tanya H. Lee

American exceptionalism is back.

The College Board, having deleted the term in its highly-controversial 2014 revision of the AP U.S. History Curriculum Framework, has reinstated it in the 2015 revision, which came out at the end of July.

Three American Indian history scholars reviewed the curriculum in detail at ICTMN’s request.

Shannon Speed, Chickasaw, director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas Austin, defines American exceptionalism. “What it means is the notion that America is an exceptional country, the greatest country in the world, founded on laudable principles, and that while there were minor things like genocide and slavery, really in the end we should all rally around our identity as Americans because those things were asides in this big narrative of American history.”

The term, says James Riding In, Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, is “an attempt to distort history and to place white Americans above reproach, condemnation and culpability.” Riding In is associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University.

The treatment of American Indians in the narrative of U.S. history is an issue that K. Tsianina 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, also finds troubling. She cites this statement in the curriculum: “Latino, American Indian, and Asian American movements continued to demand social and economic equality and redress of past injustices.”

Lomawaima says, “No, no, no. These are not equivalent categories. [These groups] have very different goals in mind. [This statement is] once again erasing indigenous sovereignty and sliding American Indians in as just another piece of the so-called racial-ethnic mix. That’s part of the whole impulse to erase, eliminate the Native, because that gets rid of the problem, which is—this nation was founded on the illegal acquisition of Native lands.”

Juliana Barr, an associate professor of history at Duke University who worked on the 2015 revision, agrees, explaining that “each of those groups has completely different issues that they are negotiating with the U.S. government.”

Treatment of the sovereign status of American Indian nations is an area that drew a lot of criticism. Riding In comments, “The way the curriculum is written says Indians are just like other groups wanting a piece of the American pie. That is not the case, because Indians have been able to conserve our sovereignty by maintaining a degree of separation from dominant society…. We are not a minority group. We are distinct peoples with a highly defined political relationship with the U.S. government.”

There are underlying problems with the overall approach of the curriculum, says Lomawaima. Throughout most of the document, she notes, the taking of Indian lands is presented as a natural outcome of the movement of different groups of people across the country. But, she says, terms like “seizure of their [American Indians’] lands,” suggest a more accurate understanding of American Indian-settler interactions.

Speed comments on another problem, how the curriculum treats what was essentially the enslavement of Native peoples, noting that a description of the encomienda system is preceded by this statement, “Spanish exploration and the conquest of the Americas were accompanied and furthered by widespread deadly epidemics that devastated Native populations….”

Speed says, “This is true, but what happens with the [order in which the points are] presented is a lot of students come away with the idea that the depopulation of the American continent was largely accidental—it happened because Europeans brought germs with them and they didn’t know everybody was going to get sick and die. Certainly many people did die of European diseases. But that is only a part of what happened and a large part of what happened, besides open warfare, which was significant, was forced labor, which killed lots of people.”

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Feedback on the 2014 version included sharp criticism that the exam was not sufficiently patriotic and did not present American history in a sufficiently positive light. Riding In notes that in the curriculum framework, there is almost no mention of American Indians after 1898. “It’s as if Indians just vanished,” he says.

A straightforward example of crossed communications—a lack of consensus between the authors of the curriculum and the Native American history professors ICTMN consulted about what to say and how to say it—is this: The College Board wrote, “In the encomienda system, Spanish colonial economies marshaled Native American labor to support plantation-based agriculture and extract precious metals and other resources.” The American Indian historians whom ICTMN consulted suggested that the word “marshaled” could be understood as referring to a way of organizing workers, glossing over the fact that the encomienda system was a system of forced labor.

But what the College Board meant, says Barr, is something quite different. “We purposely used the word ‘marshal’ because it speaks to military order and coercion; that word was chosen consciously.”

For work so important—and so fraught with centuries of conquest, oppression and prejudice—a more representative group of scholars might have produced a less problematic document where intent and execution were more aligned.

As Lomawaima notes, “[The curriculum] doesn’t say to celebrate American exceptionalism. It just includes it as a topic. I couldn’t find anything in the language here that would mandate one way or another either celebrating or critiquing American exceptionalism. It just puts it into the mix as a component of the character or the conversations about this nation. And I think in that respect it’s correct. It has been a powerful ideology. It continues to be a powerful ideology.”

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