Teaching Indigenous Histories: A Roundtable

Teaching and Teaching Materials Committee Report: “Teaching Indigenous Histories”: A Roundtable, Washington, D.C., January 5, 2008

The Teaching and Teaching Materials Committee sponsored a roundtable discussion at the CLAH meeting in Washington, D.C. in order to discuss the various ways that we are bringing indigenous histories into our classrooms.

Erin O’Connor, incoming Chair of the Teaching Committee, opened the roundtable by identifying the questions around which the roundtable was developed. Scholarship on indigenous histories has grown tremendously in recent decades, and historians now have a much more nuanced understanding of the topic than they once did. How do we bring these discoveries into our courses and classrooms? What approaches and tools seem to work best? What challenges have we faced in trying to help our students develop a deeper and more refined understanding of indigenous histories?

Joanna Crow of the University of Bristol spoke first, discussing a ten-week course on indigenous history focused mainly on the twentieth century and indigenous involvement in national politics. Her talk opened up issues of great importance for teaching indigenous history, given the increasing, and increasingly varied, indigenous engagements in politics in Latin America since the middle of the twentieth century. To get students to think critically about indigenous politics, she emphasizes the multiplicity of historical narratives—in particular, she notes that there are a diversity of “indigenous” positions in national conflicts. She also engages students the problem of finding and analyzing “authentic” indigenous sources. She is careful to try to help students overcome the idea that indigenous peoples are victims, instead offering them ways to see indigenous peoples as agents in history. Two of the main challenges she has encountered include having students take anything scholars say as absolute “fact,” and the paucity of sources by (rather than about) indigenous peoples.

René Harder Horst of Appalachian State University took center stage next, and offered an inspiring collection of ideas about how to teach a course on Modern Indigenous Resistance Movements—a course that he has taught several different ways over the years. He opens by using a combination of geography and theory to get students to begin to think about the diversity of indigenous identities and help them avoid the pitfall of essentialism. The strategies he described ran an impressive gamut, from having students dress up as different actors in the conquest period and role-play events that took place, to getting students to watch and critique how films depict indigenous peoples and resistance movements.

Brooke Larson of the State University of New York at Stony Brook identified several different approaches that one might take in order to make indigenous histories come alive for students, especially given that so many college students in the United States lack the context into which they can place what they learn about indigenous peoples of Latin America. She discussed that one could focus on comparative perspectives to introduce how different regional factors shaped indigenous experiences and resistance. She also suggested that it could be useful to focus on “big issues” rather than try to “cover time” in order to give students a sense of real lived histories rather than seeing indigenous peoples simply as oppressed and dehumanized victims. Finally, she emphasized the importance of uncovering as many indigenous voices in history as we can for our students. The question or problem she posed was: how does one find a way to package all of these important approaches and lessons into a single semester?

Brian Owensby of the University of Virginia titled his talk “Do Indians Have Ideas?” He opened by observing that students carry several stereotypes or preconceptions about indigenous peoples with them into the classroom. There is, for example, the idea of the “Indian savage” or the “Indian victim.” More recently, they have thought of Indians as stubborn survivalists who appropriate imposed values. Owensby noted that this last preconception traps indigenous peoples as prisoners of ritual and culture—as opposed to how students think of themselves as free. In this context, “indigenous agency” is only the ability to resist or to resign to their fate. How, then, can one teach the colonial survey without Indians coming off as victims whose lives remain forever elusive? One way to do this is to call our own “freedom” into question, instead emphasizing for our students that all human beings are constrained in some ways. Another strategy is to introduce ways that indigenous peoples had and have ideas of their own—about religion, law, and politics.

Florence Mae Waldron of Lebanon Valley College wrapped up the roundtable presentations with her informative and thought-provoking discussion of how one can use testimonios, oral histories, and other stories to teach indigenous histories. She noted that, first and foremost, first-hand accounts make history come alive for students, providing the “hook” to keep them interested in the topic. Further, these stories challenge students’ preconceptions and help to teach them to analyze history from multiple perspectives. Personal stories also make the past relevant and recognizable to students, introducing indigenous peoples as individuals who made/make choices. She closed by noting that there are potential pitfalls to watch out for: stories like these must be used in conjunction with other sources, and one must keep students grounded in the larger historical context of the individual stories they explore.

These presentations led into a lively, fruitful, and thoroughly enjoyable discussion between the panelists and the attendees. We began by identifying a few main themes raised in the presentations. One was the challenge and necessity of presenting the humanity of indigenous peoples, breaking down barriers between modern and primitive, us and them, free versus imprisoned, dynamic versus ahistorical. In order to do this, we discussed how crucial it is to find ways to establish the diversity of indigenous experiences and indigenous agency—without losing sight of the fact that indigenous peoples were and are deeply exploited. We also discussed the challenges of presenting a “messy” rather than “neat” historical narrative, particularly when so many students lack context for indigenous histories. Another common theme was the scarcity of sources and accessible scholarship to bring the importance and complexity of indigenous histories to our students in meaningful—and manageable—ways. Examination of these various themes led us into a discussion of how we might share more teaching ideas, strategies, syllabi, and sources with each other. Erin O’Connor said she would work to develop more materials for the TC website this year, and Marc Becker graciously agreed to handle the technical end of this project. Those present concluded that indigenous histories would be an excellent theme on which to begin to develop the website into a great resource for teaching Latin American history. Members adjourned—just in time for the CLAH cocktail party—having learned a lot from each other and generated many useful ideas to integrate scholarship and teaching on the theme of indigenous history.

Erin O’Connor

Bridgewater State College of Massachusetts

Chair of the Teaching and Teaching Materials Committe