Native American History is the Answer to Your Coverage Problems

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Adam Jortner is an associate professor of history at Auburn University. He is the author of The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle for Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier (2012), and the forthcoming Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic (2017). He is also a former member of the script team for Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? on PBS.

Adam Jortner is an associate professor of history at Auburn University. He is the author of The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle for Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier (2012), and the forthcoming Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic (2017). He is also a former member of the script team for Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? on PBS.

For collegiate or high school history teachers, August is the season of tinkering. With new semesters barreling down, we add and remove readings, change assignments, shift October material to December.

Coverage is the enemy of tinkering. Whether for professional, political, or personal reasons, courses (especially surveys) often have to cover more in less time.

Native American history may not immediately leap to mind as the solution to problems of coverage, but it should. The depth and interplay of Native American worlds, cultures, and politics have been demonstrated by scholars, but they are often underappreciated in pedagogy. The recent volume Why You Can’t Teach U.S. History without Native Americans explodes the myth that coverage demands preclude integrating Native Americans broadly in the history of the United States. When it comes to Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Nuclear Age, Native American history can be a solution to coverage demands.

Let me sell you on two potential lesson plans, based off the essays in Why You Can’t. Then if you’re still reading, we can talk theory. But if you’re tinkerer, you need lessons first.

Let’s start with a religion and violence in America. As an added bonus, this example also functions as a War of 1812 lesson plan. (And let’s face it: unless you are Nicole Eustice or Alan Taylor, you probably need a War of 1812 lesson plan.)

You’ll need a couple of maps of the Indiana Territory as divided by Indian treaties (a good one is available on Wikipedia) and if possible, some of the letters of the territory’s governor, William Henry Harrison, available in Logan Esarey’s 1922 collection.

Map from Wikimedia, created by user ArnoldPlaton.

Map from Wikimedia, created by user ArnoldPlaton.

A quick comparison of modern Indiana maps and early nineteenth-century Indiana maps shows that Indiana then was a little stamp of white settlement, surging up from Kentucky, and the rest of the territory belonged to Indians. Harrison negotiated for several more scraps of land, but when he bought more land in the Treaty of Ft. Wayne, a Native American prophet said no. Tenskwatawa—a devotee of a new religion—rebuked Harrison, declared the north of the territory to be his sovereign region, and built his own city on the banks of the Tippecanoe to prove it. That meant that Indiana was split by multiple territorial claims. (Why You Can’t Teach has a map depicting just that.) From here, teachers can usefully discuss a) how land claims provoked conflict in Indiana, and b) how different maps convey different kinds of information.

If you really want to go for the gold star, you can have students read Harrison’s 1810 message to his legislature, which lays out the arguments Tenskwatawa presented against Fort Wayne, and Harrison’s peremptory response. This message also has Harrison dismissal of Tenskwatawa’s religion as imposture.[1] Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh practiced a novel religion known today as nativism, and Harrison repeatedly described this religion to legislators and superiors in Washington as a kind of evil cult that needed to be destroyed. When Harrison torched Prophetstown in 1811, at the Battle of Tippecanoe, he thought he had succeeded; in fact, Tippecanoe tilted the Old Northwest into the wider War of 1812. Battles erupted across American soil for the next two years.

Next let’s try the California Gold Rush, as suggested by Jean M. O’Brien’s essay in Why You Can’t Teach. O’Brien examined a flotilla of textbooks to discover how they treated the 1849 discovery of gold in California. All of them, she found, described John Sutter and James Wilson Marshall as isolated white men in California, accidentally stumbling upon gold flecks. None of these books explain what Sutter and Marshall were doing in northern California—namely, setting up a new colony and drawing upon the labor of the Yalisummi Ninesan nation. In other words, they were entering into a world of preexisting Native American labor, land claims, and rights that had been turned topsy-turvy by the Mexican War. The discovery of gold was not a lucky break for a lone entrepreneur, but an accidental result of the introduction of American interests into Indian territory.

What followed, therefore, was a process that involved expelling California’s Indians from their land. Robert Heizer’s edited collection, Destruction of the California Indians, provides a wealth of primary-source documents demonstrating the world Sutter found in 1848, the reversal of Indian land rights, and the massacres that followed. (I recommend documents 1:1, 2:7, and 7:1, but Heizer’s volume is rich in examples.) If Heizer’s book is not readily available, enterprising teachers might look at J. Ross Browne’s Report of the Debates in the Convention of California (digitized on Google Books), or might compare the definitions of citizenship and voting rights as laid out in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo as compared to those enacted in Article II of California’s original constitution.

Legal and military efforts to control Native American communities embedded in the gold rush soon brought de facto wars across California, devastating Native American communities. Guns and ammunition are particularly noticeable elements in the militia reports of Indian massacres. Yet as O’Brien points out, while the decline in Indian population received mention in most history books, the causes did not—nor did the ultimate survival of California’s Native American population.

These lesson outlines are not perfect: I have not included any Native voices, for one thing, and I have oversimplified Native American internal cultural and political alliances. But it’s also worth pointing out what these lessons are not: stories of the First Thanksgiving, or of the Beringian Migrations, or of the French and Indian War.

Part of the problem of thinking about Native American history is that Indian history is “coded” as colonial—when the thirteen colonies declare independence, Indians usually fade from view. That creates the illusion that the continent was virgin territory—essentially empty—and that the politics, culture, religion, and power of Native North Americans had no further influence and no further importance. That skews the view of all U.S. history, and provides a haunting post hoc justification for white expansion and exploitation of Native country in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Making Native American history a part of U.S. history—of all U.S. history—can ameliorate some of these textbook flaws. And the good news is: the tools are here to do it. It can take place now, as you tinker. The essays in Why You Can’t Teach cover the full chronology of American history, demonstrating both methodological approaches to rethinking the survey and practical lessons that can be immediately folded into a variety of history classes. Indian history is not a bit player that appears as a windtalker or a Sitting Bull, but integral to the history of American power and society; questions of sovereignty, energy, and war require an understanding of Native Americans and the Native American experience. From a practical pedagogical standpoint, including Native Americans is not only a compelling new way to teach post-1776 topics, it is also a way to get to coverage.

O’Brien rightly asserts that we shouldn’t teach American history without Native Americans. But the editors of the volume made their contribution more explicit: you can’t teach it without Native Americans. Without considering Native American lives and politics, then the dynamics of 1811 Indiana and 1849 California become mere data rather than human drama. Showing the people of the Midwest and Alta California as living communities that fought, feared, and forged a new world makes it history.

[1] WHH Annual Message, 11/12/1810, in Messages and Papers of William Henry Harrison, Logan Esarey, ed. (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1922), 1: 487.

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