Teaching the JAH: Robert Michael Morrissey on “The Power of the Ecotone”

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Map from the second exercise of Teaching the JAH.

Map from the second exercise of Teaching the JAH.

“Rethinking early Native American history is a difficult enterprise,” Robert Morrissey argues. “Myths and stereotypes are well entrenched in American lore, and historians have few sources to use to tell a different and more balanced story about native peoples— especially about those who lived in the continental interior, away from centers of colonization. To rethink the history of the Illinois we can, of course, use the traditional sources of colonial history: the writings of European colonists who encountered and lived among native peoples and witnessed their actions. These sources, however, are few in number and imperfect….We do have other sources of information to supplement the colonial writings. Archaeology, linguistics, and material culture can add to our understanding and do not share the same problems as written sources. And if these sources can help us begin to recover history from an Illinois perspective, we can also learn a lot about Indian actions and motivations simply by considering natives’ specific ecological and geographical settings.”

In the latest Teaching the Journal of American History, Robert Michael Morrissey provides a teaching supplement for his December 2015 article, “The Power of the Ecotone: Bison, Slavery, and the Rise and Fall of the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia.” The article’s full text is available here.

Morrissey includes six exercises that tackle the scarcity of primary sources from a Native American point of view. These exercises present students with interdisciplinary sources that they may not expect, such as ecological maps of biomes and soil, as well as more traditional sources like memoirs, letters, and excerpts from language dictionaries. By providing an opportunity to interact with a diverse group of documents, this teaching guide will encourage students to consider a more nuanced, demythologized history of Native Americans.

Previous Teaching the JAH pieces featuring are available here.

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