Sunday, February 03, 2008

Subjects not taught: American Indian Activism, and, Code Talkers

The spring semester is well under way here at Illinois. Every time I teach Introduction to American Indian Studies, students are surprised at how little they're taught in elementary and high school about American Indians of the present day. Most teaching confines Native peoples to the distant past, and, presents us as primitive creatures, bloodthirsty savages or tragic heroes.

The first week of class, we talked about American Indian Activism. We watched an excellent documentary by James Fortier called Alcatraz is not an Island, and, we read Robert Allen Warrior and Paul Chaat Smith's Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. Read Mark Trahant's review of the book here. My students talked about their studies of the civil rights movement in elementary and high school, but that never learned about American Indian activism. I wrote about this last year. Below is a clip from the documentary.

Last week there was a screening of a documentary called Navajo Code Talkers. Many of my students went to it and again, spoke of what they don't learn in school. They talked of the irony of a government that purposefully set out to "kill the Indian and save the man" later attributed success in military engagements to Native peoples and languages they had earlier sought to destroy. Native language was first used as code in WWI. Read about the Choctaw Indian Code Talkers at this page, from the Choctaw Nation's website. Read, too, about the Comanche Code Talkers here.

Textbooks may not include information about Code Talkers or American Indian activism, but you can do something about these omissions using children's books. You could, for example, use Joseph Bruchac's book on the Navajo Code Talkers. Cynthia Leitich Smith interviewed him about the book. You can read the interview here. And, read Beverly Slapin's essay "Children's Books about Navajo Code Talkers."

Clip from Alcatraz is not an Island:



Anonymous said...

I'm not Native and it’s not entirely clear what the Smelcer situation is here. But I am very familiar with adoption issues. It appears that a Native family adopted a non-Native son. That makes him their son, not their adopted son.

Smelcer Junior says he was raised in a Native environment. If a boy his adopted into an Italian-American family, then he's raised in an Italian-American environment -- even if the father is in the military and the son is raised in the suburbs. Why is this different? Is it not a *real* Native upbringing if it's only immediate family? Would it be different somehow if the son was a biological son? Because making that distinction is just wrong.

The fact that Smelcer Senior seems to want to disown his son is very sad. If the father is Native, how can he say his own son wasn't raised in a Native environment?

Anonymous said...

Please check out "Homelands", a recent set of four cases of successful resistance to efforts by corporations to wreak environmental havoc on tribal lands. Here: Homelands

There are many heroes in these powerful accounts.

The effect of this work on students, as well as the accomodating lengths of 25 minutes each, has seriously made me search for similar kinds of effort. It's been a miniseries for my classes this winter.

Anonymous said...

There was a lot going on in your latest post! I want to comment on two things. First, to recommend to your readers Kenji Kawano's photoessay on the Navajo code talkers. Very moving, and highly recommended by Oyate reviewers. Then to say thanks for the recognition for James Fortier's film about Alcatraz. Some of our family members were part of the occupation, including a nephew who was an infant at the time. This was before I knew them. When we inherited letters written by one family member who has passed on, it was a surprise to find that the occupation was the subject of a couple of those letters -- it was clear that though this person had not participated in the occupation, there was a sense of pride and hopefulness generated by the fact that it was happening, and that younger relatives were part of it. I hope people will show Fortier's film to their classes.

Debbie Reese said...


Please read the two posts I have on Smelcer. His father doesn't disown him. His father says Smelcer is using the father's identity for personal and professional gain.

Smelcer is saying things about his identity that are not true. If you read the newspaper article excerpts, you will see he was under investigation because his application at the University of Alaska also had questionable items in it.

Can you flesh out your Italian-American environment parallel? What does it mean to be raised Italian-American in a suburb?

Anonymous said...

Debbie's right about the stereotype that American Indians are a piece of America's past and not connected to modern life, especially when it relates to modern activism. It's fortunate that there are several resources available to help explain some of the recent history and injustices still happening because of these stereotypes. Homeland is a great documentary about the environmental activism that some Indians are taking in their own hands - and finally getting support from local and regional organizations.

I'm also a non-Native, but growing up in rural Alaska where landless tribes and their members are still battling racism, I realize that it's more important than ever to understand and teach the importance of modern Native social, economic, and environmental movements. I'm a young man, but it was as recent as my father's generation that businesses displayed signs that read, "No Dogs, or Indians". It's important that the next generation of both Native and non-Native students learns about events like Dr. King's Freedom Riders, as well as Unthanksgiving or The Longest Walk.

Here are some additional resources about modern American Indian activism and the challenges of urban Indians that I've recently recommended for patrons:

Looking Toward Home - DVD

Incident at Oglala - DVD

And for fans of Leonard Peltier:
Prison Writings

Have you thought of Leonard Peltier lately?

Katrina Hursey said...

I completely agree with you. What I learned about American Indians growing up has been completely inaccurate. I finally began to learn more of the truth when I started college. However, taking a Native American Children’s Literature class has really opened my eyes even more.

As I read Code Talker and A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children I am so disheartened by the way American Indians have been treated all these years and how much inaccurate information is portrayed in hundreds of children’s books. I always believe in teaching children using truthful information and allowing them to form their own opinions. Much richer discussions and authentic learning follows when using the truth.

I really hope to continue learning more about accurate American Indian history. I also think that children and adults would learn so much more about the history of certain cultures and events if they were not glamorized or fictionalized for the sake of a story.