Teaching Ancient America

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Matt Jennings is Associate Professor of History at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia, where he’s taught since 2007. His research interests include Native American history, the history of violence, and music. His first book, New Worlds of Violence, appeared in 2011, and he’s currently working on two manuscripts about Ocmulgee National Monument and one about Macon’s brewing industry.

Most survey-level American history classes cover one of two periods: the first concluding somewhere in the neighborhood of the Civil War or Reconstruction, and the second picking things up there. The simple fact, then, is that those of us wishing to treat ancient America (understood here as the period before the arrival of Europeans) as a crucial aspect of our survey teaching face some serious obstacles, one of which is the fact that one of the halves of the survey sequence is charged with covering more than 10,000 years while the other covers a scant century and a half. One might easily get the impression that American history, as traditionally periodized, downplays the role of indigenous people! To make matters worse, many textbooks treat all of American antiquity as a race to some more recent date: 1492 and 1607 are pretty popular choices. It’s as if ancient North America is useful only as a prelude to “discovery,” and its millions of inhabitants were milling about aimlessly, waiting for their history to begin in earnest. To be fair, some textbooks do mention ancient America, but these mentions are often of the “greatest hits” variety, with brief looks at Cahokia and Chaco Canyon.

Those of us who study ancient America will not succeed if our goal is to divide the surveys into two roughly equal periods of history (though it would be really fun to try). Nor are we likely to influence textbook publishers to recalibrate their entire approach to ancient America. We are not totally powerless, though. As we prepare for the parts of our classes dealing with ancient America, squeezed or truncated though they may be, there are some things that might help to inform our approach philosophically and some practical things we can do to get our students to think deeply about the deep past. Most students enter the American history survey course knowing next to nothing about North America’s deep history, though they might harbor stereotypes about the people who made this world. Both of these things have been true in my experience. But that dearth of background knowledge provides an opportunity to demolish those stereotypes, and to think seriously about some of the major issues in early American history, such as how to teach history with limited written sources and how to give a rich, long history its due in a course that by design privileges newcomers over natives.

Vine Deloria, Jr. once skewered feel-good, multicultural American history as an attempt to “lovingly plug a few feathers, woolly heads, and sombreros into the famous events of American history.”[2] Stories of the indigenous past have to have some effect on the narrative of early American history. A rich understanding of early North America carries within it the potential to destroy some of the most powerful myths in American history.

Teaching the ancient past of North America gives the lie to the notion that Europeans and their descendants were somehow inherently superior to the people they met on this side of the Atlantic. It also refutes the idea that some sort of cultural homogeneity prevailed here: that “Native America” and “Native Americans” were anything other than a shorthand for millions of people in a wide array of societies engaging in the kinds of things human societies did all over the world such as trade, diplomacy, and warfare. A nod to the breadth of cultural expressions of ancient America and the depth of American antiquity can be humbling, and approaching such a vast chronology can be daunting—the Archaic Era alone weighs in at seven millennia, from 8,000 BCE to 1,000 BCE according to one popular model—but it can also open the mind to the possibilities of including ancient American history in the classroom.

Now for some practical suggestions.

Teaching ancient America well requires us to actually practice the interdisciplinary approaches we preach, and recognize that it’s more fraught than we might expect to try to bring archaeology, anthropology, and Native Studies into the mix. There is overlap between these disciplines, but they approach the past from different perspectives and grow from different institutional roots, so the attempt to include them can be discomfiting. I think that makes it even more valuable, especially if students and teachers struggle concurrently with readings at the edge of their understanding. I might assign my students Neal Salisbury’s article “The Indians’ Old World,”[3] while I wrestle with more technical archaeological scholarship based on a site nearby, or one that we will discuss in class.

Mississippian gorget

Teaching ancient America can help students to grapple with, and perhaps come to appreciate, a wide range of source materials, including artifacts and replicas, or at least images of artifacts, plans of ancient settlements, and architecture (such as earthworks). I have had particularly effective classroom discussions of the Mississippian Era (roughly 1000 to 1500 CE) by juxtaposing images of the Corn Mother with those of shamans and cosmic warriors from pipes and gorgets (ornamental breastplates). I am spoiled because I teach in the shadow of Ocmulgee National Monument (a Mississippian-period mound site in Macon, Georgia) and many of my students have visited it, even if they’re only dimly aware of its historical significance. But even without ready access, images of ancient architecture can provoke striking responses among students. Incorporating sources like these can also help to blur the distinction between history and “prehistory” that persists in some quarters.

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Together, these images crafted within a Mississippian gorget (circular image above) and pipe can spark discussion of diet, gender roles, violence, and exchange among Mississippian towns.

Teaching ancient America should use readings produced by Native authors, or with Native consultants, to ensure that the distant past is not unnaturally divorced from its rightful heirs. The possibilities are endless, from Acoma origin stories paired with a virtual tour of the modern Acoma community in New Mexico to early Choctaw reckonings of Nanih Waiya (the Mother Mound, in Mississippi) matched with excerpts from the contemporary writings of Leanne Howe.[4] Probing the ways in which Native nations today approach ancient America works on multiple levels, as it shows that Native people continue to shape and preserve their own history, and demonstrates their vitality long after European empires and the United States attempted to erase them.[5] Stories from modern nations treating Native historicity or the distant past may be particularly useful in forging this connection, and for getting students to think about the ways in which different groups of people approached their histories.

Since there is virtually no region of North America that is totally devoid of reminders of deep history, teachers should make efforts to connect to sites of local significance, perhaps by arranging for visits to historical sites, or inviting those charged with preserving the site to speak, or by connecting with the cultural preservation offices of modern Native nations connected to the site under consideration.

This is not, by any measure, a comprehensive guide to teaching ancient America. Rather, like the OAH 2014 panel from which it developed, it is intended to provide some general suggestions in an effort to start a conversation. But general suggestions and vague calls for conversation can only take us so far. We have to recognize that teaching ancient America is something that many of us could, and should, do more conscientiously and more effectively. That is certainly true in my case. If we fail to illuminate the longevity and diversity of human experiences in early America, we run the risk of reinforcing the very sorts of stereotypes that the best teachers should seek to call into question or destroy.

Notes:

[1] The author wishes to thank James Rice, Robbie Ethridge, Kenneth Sassaman, and James Carson, all of whom participated in a panel on teaching Ancient America at the OAH in 2014, and Jordan Taylor at the OAH, who offered me the opportunity to write on this subject.

[2] Vine Deloria, Jr. We Talk, You Listen (New York, 1970), 39

[3] Neal Salisbury, “The Indians’ Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans,” in William and Mary Quarterly, 53 (July 1996), 435–58. This is a particularly strong offering because Salisbury hits on two major sites that beginning undergraduates might have heard of, but he places them in wide-ranging networks of exchange, so students can get a feel for the dynamism of America before the invasion from Europe.

[4] Peter Nabokov’s chapter on Nanih Waiya (“Hills of Hidden Meaning”) in Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places (New York, 2007) has also elicited strong student responses, in my experience.

[5] These facts are obvious in Indian Country, and to those who specialize in Native American history, but how deeply these obvious facts have penetrated the understanding of the larger historical profession and altered our approaches in the classroom is up for debate.

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