Decolonizing the Classroom to Teach Native American History

In mid-19th century northern Michigan, boarding schools were perhaps the most effective White institutions used to eliminate the culture and customs of the Native American tribe of Odawa.

Before the War of 1812, Odawa and White families lived in relative peace, but after the war, mission schools set their sights on assimilating Native American children to fit Euro-American standards, according to the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Odawa youth were not allowed to speak their native languages, faced discrimination and harsh punishment, and were separated from their families for long periods of time. The federal government established the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824 and implemented rules for boarding schools based on the assimilation model.

Despite this attempt at cultural eradication, tribal nations established their own community schools and founded tribal colleges and universities, keeping their cultures alive. However, traditional curricula for teaching indigenous history runs the risk of glossing over an uncomfortable past and ignoring valuable information.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst initiated a project — teachnativehistories.umass.edu — to provide curriculum resources for educators looking to teach this history responsibly. “Facts without context can be misleading or downright harmful. Much of what [the] mainstream American knows about Native Americans is filtered through a lens of non-Native perspectives and biases,” the project mission states.

The project outlines these tips for “decolonizing” the classroom:

Kelsey Landis is the editor-in-chief of DiversityIS. This article ran in the fall 2019 issue.