Sunday, January 07, 2007

Some Thoughts On Teaching About Native Americans by John A. Duerk

[Note from Debbie: Several weeks ago, I began email correspondence with John Duerk, during which he shared his experiences as a teacher. I asked him to write an essay for the blog. Here it is.]

While teaching social studies in a rural, Illinois high school, I observed a high level of ignorance and defensiveness about the Native American experience here in the United States. As a teacher who cares about history and its connection to contemporary matters of social justice, I found this to be rather disturbing. Most of my students simply did not have much prior knowledge about Native Americans beyond the generic stories they are told in grade school or the racist stereotypes that are propagated through the mainstream media. This bothered me because there is a serious disconnect between perception and reality – a disconnect that creates barriers which prevent young people from coming to terms with the past and understanding the present. After all, how can students place the current Native American state of affairs in the proper context if they lack knowledge of human experiences that have led to us all to this point? They cannot. In my history and government classes I tried to address these problems with lesson plans designed to challenge and overcome their ignorance and defensiveness.

In US History class, two of the most invaluable lessons I taught involved the voyage(s) of Christopher Columbus and President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy. With regard to the lesson on Columbus, my students read an excerpt from his journal and discussed the language he used to describe the native people he encountered. Then my students read two recent secondary sources that presented contrasting views of Columbus (one positive, the other negative). Finally, they had to write a paragraph (at least five sentences long) explaining which view they agreed with and why. A class discussion also followed the paragraph writing. Many students commented about how they had never read a criticism of Columbus. This reality speaks to the inadequacies of social studies instruction at the elementary and junior high levels. As for the lesson on Indian Removal, I conducted a mock trial of President Jackson after students studied his policy (Indian Removal Act of 1830) and its results (The Trail of Tears). While students played almost every courtroom role during the trial (I played the judge to oversee the process), contrasting views (for and against removal) were presented through prosecution and defense witnesses. In the end, the jury had to decide Jackson ’s fate based on the case facts. Many students left with a more critical view of his presidency as well as an understanding that some government policies have been incredibly harmful to Native Americans. Ultimately, when young people read and discuss a combination of primary and secondary sources that detail the lives of Indians, then they are more inclined to grasp the depth of the events that transpired.

In American Government class, I taught a provocative lesson on the case of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement activist who is serving two consecutive life sentences for the killing of two federal agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Most of my students were unaware of the events that occurred that June day in 1975, much less the doubts many have as to his guilt. To begin this lesson, I lectured on the impoverished and corrupt state of the Pine Ridge reservation at that time, the goals of the American Indian Movement and why its members went to Pine Ridge, and who Leonard Peltier is. Next, students read an excerpt from Peltier’s book, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sundance (specifically Chapter 27 where he recounts the events of June 25th). Then, they watched either the documentary film Incident at Oglala, or the A&E American Justice special, Murder on a Reservation. Due to the fact that some students felt Incident at Oglala contained biases in favor of Native Americans, I used the latter program in later years to address this concern. While viewing either the film or special, I instructed my students to write down five comments and five questions about the case so we could have a solid class discussion afterward. Also, before the day of the discussion, they read a lengthy news article on the case and answered several questions that I provided. This lesson proved to be more controversial than the others in history class because the event is more immediately relevant. Moreover, it involves a member of a radical civil rights group that sought to protect indigenous people through physical force when necessary. Many students found the case very unsettling regardless of their view of Leonard Peltier (his guilt or innocence).

As a social studies teacher, I tried to provide my students with as much information as possible to build their knowledge base, promote analytical thinking skills, and stir their desire to question the institutions around them. Looking back, there is so much more I wanted to do, but alas, I made a serious effort to address the Native American experience in my classroom. Young people need to learn more about life here before the colonists arrived, and then trace that history to the present to fully understand how our country came to be. They must confront the uncomfortable realities we now live with. Only through critical inquest will we uncover truth. Only through reexamining our perceptions can we bridge the social, political, and economic divides between people. The public school system is one place where genuine change can begin when young people are nurtured with the proper instruction. If there is to be some justice for surviving indigenous peoples, then we owe them a significant place in our curriculum.

John A. Duerk is a Ph. D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University and an activist who advocates a variety of progressive causes.

Duerk’s Resources for Teachers:

American Indian Movement website:

"The Journey of Christopher Columbus" website:

Leonard Peltier Defense Committee website:

No Parole Peltier Association website:

Peltier, Leonard. 1999. Prison Writings: My Life is My Sundance. New York , NY: St. Martin ’s Press, p. 123-130.

Stannard, David E. 1992. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World . New York , NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., p. 69-72.

Swanbrow, Dianne. 2005. Study: Explorer Still Widely Admired. The University of Record Online: The University of Michigan News Service, 12 October. Available on the Internet,

Treen, Joe. 1992. A Question of Justice. People Weekly. 4 May, v37, n17, p. 36-39.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. 1993. The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians. New York , NY: Hill and Wang.

Wilson, Wendy S. and Herman, Gerald H. 2000. Unit 3: “Andrew Jackson and the Removal of the Cherokee Nation” (Mock Trial) in Critical Thinking Using Primary Sources in US History. Portland , Maine: Walch Publishing, p. 16-23, 131-141.


jcrit said...

Thanks you for this. I find it to be very encouraging.

John A. Duerk said...

This is the least I can do given what I know about history. I really appreciate the fact that you took the time to read it!

Christine said...

You have brought up very interesting points esp. from a teacher's POV. I applaud you for taking the time to reflect on how you presented the materials. Given that, more teachers ought to be commended for wanting to expand our world - our learning. I can say that there should more incorporated in the curriculum for all students both native and non-native. Thanks.

mr said...

In the study of history, the importance of context cannot be overstated.

When I was growing up in the 50s, Native Americans -- when mentioned at all -- were depicted only as an 'Other', and always entirely through the lens of the Western European colonizers.

Consequently the actions of the settlers and the government always made a kind of 'sense', that the actions and attitudes of the Native peoples never quite did.

As long as we teach our children that the history of this country -- 'our' history -- is the story of the growth and formation of the English speaking United States of America, a Eurocentric bias is unavoidable, but I'm very glad to see that Mr Duerk is doing what he can to at least provide some sort of balance to this heavily lopsided process.

Thank you for sharing your experiences.

Angela said...

i was a student of Mr. Duerk in high school. He will be the most influential teacher ever in my life. being partially Native American i always thought that not enough people knew enough about the native american culture. Everyone knows about slavery and still cares about how that affected our culture and history but why doesn't the trail of tears have the same effect on us?