Americans + Canadians - what were you taught about Indians?

As in Native Americans, First Nations, forgive the terminology.

Hopefully you don’t mind another thread on the education system and its touching on the touchy. Here in Britain among our unfinest hours probably lie in our tendency of sticking a flag in everything and claiming the land regardless of whether the natives objected or not; Whatever happens, we have got: The Maxim gun, and they have not.

And you know how much I got at school about the British Empire? Not even a sentence! Loss of the Thirteen Colonies, Boer Wars, the Raj, Scramble for Africa, never mentioned. So I want to know how other places tell their kids about less than glorious episodes in the past, particularly on treatment of natives.

When you were a kid in elementary and high school, how much history on Native Americans were you taught? What was the context?

I grew up in Oklahoma, which has a big native population, and we were taught about all kinds of things about the natives. The atrocities that happened to the natives and about different native cultures. We took field trips to local reservations and had people come to our schools to show us some about their culture like the dances of some of their ceremonies, basket weaving, jewelry making, crop growing and other traditions they still maintained. My mom still has the moccasins us kids made in elementary school.

We learned a lot about the Trail of Tears as a lot of natives got forced to relocate to Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory. The town I grew up in was named after one of the tribes that got relocated.

Here’s a map of Oklahoma before it became the Oklahoma of today.
Oklahoma is derived from the Choctaw words okla and humma, meaning “red people”.

I graduated from high school in 1998. I remember learning about where different tribes were originally from in different parts of the US, about some of their forms of government (the Cherokee Nation, the Sioux, etc.), probably something about their native art, and the Trail of Tears. That last one aside, however, I can’t recall much talk about the interactions of European settlers and American Indians, or much editorializing one way or the other about how the groups interacted.

Really, though, Native Americans just weren’t that big a part of our education. The African-American experience was much more strongly emphasized. Though I’m not that old, it seems to me that when I was a kid the US was viewed as a black/white country, without much awareness of Native Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, or any other groups. I don’t know if that really was the common view, or if it was a function of my schools or the places I was living. The explosion in the Hispanic population in the last two decades or so, and the exponential growth of the Asian-American population, have only just brought other minority groups to the forefront, or so it seems to me.

This shocks me. The British Empire arguably created much of the modern world! I don’t see how people can understand the history of the last few centuries without it.

Maybe I shouldn’t be shocked, though. I was talking with two British guys recently, one in his early 60s and one in his early 30s. It came out that the younger guy had no idea that Britain had started the colonies in North America that turned into the United States, had no idea about the American Revolution, had no idea why so many place names in the US happen to share names with British cities and towns.

In any event, and if it’s not too much of a hijack, does this mean that the British Empire is considered a source of shame for modern Brits…?

I grew up in NJ. In the elementary school years, we were taught basically that everything was gravy. They welcomed the settlers, they gave the settleres food and shelter and warmth, the settlers gave them horses, Thanksgiving, etc.

In middle school it changed. Now it was that the settlements and colonies grew so fast that they had to move further west, but that we gave them their own land just for themselves! Nice resource-rich reservations!

Finally by high school, the ugly truth was exposed. Manifest destiny, smallpox blankets, etc.

I grew up in Louisiana and went to public schools that weren’t exactly the best in the world (but some of the teachers were good). We learned a fair amount about Native Americans because history was one thing we spent a lot of time and effort on. It started with the first Thanksgiving in Kindergarten and then progressed to the atrocities by Junior High. I think everyone was fully aware about the general points before they reached High School.

It is a little hard for me to judge however. My father is a huge Native American buff and one of his hobbies was digging for artifacts. He had literally thousands of them, especially rock knives, spear tips and arrowheads plus some genuine historical clothing and one really valuable tomahawk in perfect condition. We also had hundreds of books on various Native American tribes at our house and I would read them for fun sometimes. I always knew since I was quite young that the U.S. used to be populated by lots of different tribes and the reasons why they weren’t around so much much anymore.

The town in Ohio where I spent my childhood was lily-white, and we didn’t learn much about African-American history (except for the highlights - W.E.B. DuBois, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech), but I do remember being taught about the Hurons who lived in northern Ohio before the Europeans, and we did take at least one field trip to a museum of NA history. Although, they were unabashedly called “Indians”, then. But we were exposed to a lot more casual racism, sexism, and homophobia than kids are today (I hope.) The one black kid in my junior high school - a perfectly nice guy named Chip - was inevitably “Chocolate Chip”, and we played a game called “Smear the Queer”, and called the tags on the plackets of our shirts “fag tags”.

Getting back to your question, in high school in Georgia we were taught about the Trail of Tears and the Creek Wars and the Indian Removal Act (, since those were part of Georgia history. The American genocide against the native tribes wasn’t stressed, but it wasn’t glossed over, either.

We were taught that Indians saved the Pilgrims from starving. Taught them how to grow corn.

They allied with both sides in the French Indian War. Iroquois with the British and the French the Huron with other tribes.

Battle of Little Bighorn (Custer’s last Stand). I recall lessons about mistreatment of the Indians. Broken treaties. Wounded Knee was in the news because of the protest in the 1970’s.

I graduated from public* high school in the United States about a decade ago. The study of Amerindians featured prominently in mandatory history classes from elementary school through high school.

It was sometimes not particularly accurate history, a lot of politically correct noble savage bunk: “The Native Americans knew no war and lived in harmony with nature until the evil White Man showed up to rape their land.”

I’m a little shocked that you learned nothing about the British Empire in British school. We certainly learned a bit about European colonialism, as well as American colonialism.

*In America a public school is a state funded school. It is not at all like a British public school.

I went to the school in the 60s and early 70s and I’d say whatever we learned was extremely superficial. And, unfortunately, I think most Americans “learn” what they know about Indians form the movies and TV-- whether Dances with Wolves or The Lone Ranger.

Now, I’m huge Indian buff myself and have read tons. Even as a kid, when we played cowboys and Indians, I was the guy who wanted to be the Indian. Sure, I had my toy guns and such, but I didn’t like them anywhere near as much as my bow and arrows.

Another Okie here, **Drunky Smurf **covered it.

  • 5 Civilized Tribes
  • Trail of Tears
  • Land Rush (and how that impacted the Indians as we called them back then).

Indian Lore Merit Badge in Boy Scouts got some more information on other tribes.

Here in California, my sons have studied:

Some was also covered in US History (Pocahontas, Squanto, French & Indian Wars)

Early Elementary school: Indians! Hand turkeys! Pilgrims! Feathers! Uh oh, Bobby ate a feather! Yay Thanksgiving!

Late Elementary school: The Indians and the Pilgrims were best buddies! Let’s make cardstock and feather headbands! Thanksgiving was when they grew food all as one big happy family and had a feast! Yay corn! Yay feathers! Yay friendship!

Early Middle school: Well, they’re not called Indians, they’re called Native Americans. And there were different tribes - like the Cherokees and the Iroquois. Here’s a map. Some of them lived in longhouses - here’s a drawing! You know, they used all parts of the buffalo*. When the colonists arrived, they didn’t know how to survive during the winters; the Natives helped them grow food. Yay friendship!

Late Middle school: You, uh, know that whole “friendship” thing? Well, it wasn’t quite like that. Some of the Native Americans died from diseases they weren’t immune to - even a cold could mean death. And there was this thing called “Manifest Destiny” - and this other thing called “The Trail of Tears”. But we’ve learned. Everything’s hunky-dory now. Yay friendship!

Early High school: So . . . it might have been a, uh, a little like genocide. But just a little. OK, fine, maybe a lot. Here’s a graph of the population of Native Americans through the colonization process. You see that sharp, sudden drop of millions? That was smallpox. Here’s a picture. Yeah, it’s gross. And the pilgrims - shoe buckles, big hat guys? - they, uh, kind of massacred them. Yeah, Thanksgiving doesn’t really make historical sense. Sorry.

Late High school: Here’s a bunch of historical documents of European dudes talking about exactly how they’re going to kill innocent people, and how God made smallpox to exterminate Native Americans and give the land to their rightful white owners. Here’s a firsthand account of a 7-year old girl sold and raped by colonists. Believe me, that wasn’t unusual. Oh, and Native American populations still have incredibly high levels of alcoholism and depression, and are frequently impoverished. And did we mention that their culture and way of life was almost completely destroyed apart from a precious few reservations and communities that are now at risk? Yeah. So, uh . . . feather headbands! Come on, guys! Why are you crying?

*Not actually true, at least not unless they were starving, but that’s OK!

A great deal. They were big business. Every history course started with the land bridge from Asia, branched into Native American cultures and regions, their architecture, agriculture, legends… the Spanish/Portuguese exploration of the New World was taught in terms of which empires and tribes they came into contact with. Westward expansion was taught in terms of the Trail of Tears. The one course I ever took that made it to the 20th century spent at least a quarter of that time talking about AIM.

Native Americans are big business, in American history courses.

Edited to Add: Class of '98.

I was taught a bit about the tribes who had lived in the area. The other tribes were just kind of noted as having not fared well in their dealings with first the europeans and then the US. I graduated in 1980.

Growing up in the 70’s, it was pretty much guys in loin clothes and bows and arrows. One of my earliest memories was an illustration in our textbook that depicted some little house on the prairie kids hiding under the floorboards of their cabin while some mohawk axe-wielding natives were breaking in, preparing to do horrible things to them and probably already having killed their parents. Later, I remember a block of instruction where we had to memorize the names of various tribes and where on the map they lived. It was boring. The other message I got was Indians were peaceful and lived at one with nature, like monks or something, and white people were greedy and evil and bad. Not a lot of nuance.

I grew up in Virginia.

We learned the real story of Pocahontas. Then, we learned that English settlers later killed them and took their land.

I spent most of my childhood before age 10 in El Reno. We had quite a few native american kids in our school (part time - they were only at our school for 3 days a week, not sure why) but I do not recall learning anything about the history of the native peoples in Oklahoma - neither the original tribes nor the transplanted eastern tribes. This was in the 70s, so they may teach more now than they did then

Um, it’s been a long time, so I’m not really sure what was taught in class. And I’ve forgotten some things.

It may not have been in class, but I remember reading something (something T. Jefferson wrote?) about lots of broken treaties, even in colonial days. The Trail of Tears.

I don’t remember any discussion of what was done to the local nation (Osage) when the white men came in. I learned that much later.

Not much discussion of culture, I guess. Some stuff about Plains Indians because tepees are different and cool.

I seem to remember more about natives outside US territory! Some two sentences about early French exploration in Canada and the view of the “Savages,” maybe? Rather more about New Spain and the ethnic categories (indio, mestizo, creole, Spaniard). Some about the Aztecs and Maya, some stuff about the conquest of the Inca.

I don’t recall being taught anything at all about native Americans in Canada. I think we liked to just sweep it all under the rug. I think we still sweep it all under the rug.

Thanks for the replies fellas and fellasses, seems like you get a bit better overview than I thought.

I’m surprised the younger guy didn’t know about the Thirteen Colonies and them rebelling against British control, just from cultural osmosis since the US isn’t exactly an obscure place.

Speaking for myself there was a rather awkward 288 year gap between the Civil War (the English one, that is) and World War II, we literally learned nothing that happening in the 18th or 19th centuries, aka the good old days of Empire. As for why, shame almost certainly does play a part, here’s a closer look on why in Britain teaching the Empire is a source of disagreement, and an argument from the other side.