Using Indigenous Voices and Changing the Historical Narrative

By Samrat Pradhan

When I think about my school education on Native Americans, they generally followed a very similar narrative. There is first a quick and broad generalization on how indigenous communities lived post-Columbus and then a general timeline of specific trade agreements, treaties, and battles with Western colonizers.

This oversimplification is problematic in many ways, but why is it still how our textbooks and curriculums teach us about Indigenous communities? 

I recently read the article “Teaching American Indian History: A Native American Voice” by Donald Grinde, an Indigenous-American scholar who is also part of Yamasee. In the article, he explains that he and his fellow Indigenous scholars are subjected to racial and sexual slurs and are continually diminished and marginalized in the academic community. There is an apparent notion that Indigenous history should be looked at through an outsider’s lens, so it isn’t subject to and dominated by Indigenous bias. Besides this being racist and extremely ethnocidal, it is also logically inconsistent. Dr. Grinde uses the analogy if you were studying France, you wouldn’t argue that French people pose a genetic threat to their history.

Despite being paradoxical, these notions have nevertheless resulted in our currently very flawed educational system for Native Americans. He explains that current textbooks on Native Americans mirror westward colonialist views, thus are about Manifest Destiny, treaties, and wars, not about Indigenous culture and voices. It has also resulted in a history that is very sanitized and skims over the genocide of Indigenous cultures and peoples.

Dr. Grinde works on trying to change these Native American narratives taught in history. In his University classes, he makes his students learn Navajo to show how its differing verb-structures unveil new outlooks on life counter to traditional western views. He teaches Indigenous political philosophy to show unique ways to think of democracy and freedom. And he makes his students write essays about colonization and genocide from the lens of indigenous populations, not the colonizers’ history that I have learned repeatedly in school. 

Curriculums about Native Americans are best when they have voices from within the Indigenous community. This way, we get a better insight into Indigenous communities rather than just a regurgitation of historical facts from the eyes of Colonialists. Through our class readings of Round House and Junk, I see a change in my educational curriculum, in which I am learning about Indigenous experiences from actual Indigenous voices.

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