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Are we prepared to teach honest history? Placing Indigenous peoples in the conversation

Professional educator and social justice activist Claudia Fox Tree, M.Ed. (Arawak Yurumein), and racial justice educator and writer Debby Irving, held a live conversation on “Decolonizing: Placing Indigenous Peoples in the Conversation,” June 8, on Facebook live. The event was hosted by Arawak Design of Concord, Massachusetts, on the ancestral lands of the Pawtucket, Massa-adchu-es-et and Nipmuc peoples.

The conversation explored how historical narratives about the United States have shaped the women’s understanding of themselves, one another, and the complex world in which they live.

At the end of her introduction, Claudia Fox Tree stated, “I know an acknowledgement of tribal lands will never make up for the destruction that continues to be perpetrated towards the original people of this land, who were once 100% of this country’s population and have been reduced to 2%, for many needs including physical and cultural genocide.”

She said taking time to honor the land and the lives of the people who historically lived there creates a way to foster relationships with Indigenous communities in the context of healing and solidarity.

Fox Tree passed the floor to Irving, her “learning partner.” “Coming from the colonial settler lineage,” Irving said, “I like to use land acknowledgments to make visible the invisible, speak what’s too often unspoken. Racism thrives when we don’t see or hear it. As an example, I’m 61 years old, and it took me until the age of 58 to have an indigenous woman point out to me that the name of my own state, Massachusetts, is an Indigenous term meaning ‘at the large hill.’” 

The hosts tied the conversation into the recent discovery of the graves of Indigenous children at a former Indian residential school in Kamloops, BC, and alluded to the fact that the American educational system has been purposefully misteaching American history. Irving stated, “Our teachers aren’t trained, or prepared, or even encouraged to teach honest history.” This led to a conversation about the fact that both the U.S. and Canadian governments utilized the facade of education to perform acts of cultural and lingual genocide.

Citing that the U.S. boarding schools did not end until 1978, Fox Tree recalls being told not to discuss her heritage, culture, and Indigenous background as a young person. Fox Tree added, “We’ve talked about how it isn’t just not being encouraged to teach honest, or correct for all of us, history. It’s actively teaching misinformation, actively teaching stories that aren’t true. So, it isn’t just an absence, it’s a replacement narrative that is not the true narrative.”

One of the examples Fox Tree shared was regarding the Navajo Code Talkers during World War II. She emphasized that the Navajo Code Talkers are why the U.S. made such strides in the war; but went on to say that, because Indigenous children had been plucked out of their homes and communities and placed in the boarding schools, many Nations were no longer fluent in their language; and that a soldier did not need to be from the Navajo nation to be a Code Talker. They merely needed to be able to speak the language.

Fox Tree brought up the misconception that at the time of colonization land was just going wild without caretakers, lying empty and ready to be claimed. This false narrative of a “pristine wilderness” leaves out the Indigenous people who were in relationship with the land which was modified for trails, farming, and villages, among other things. 

Fox Tree brought up the Black Hills as an example, saying, “The Fort Laramie treaty actually has a couple of different dates because it gets revised through history. It is really important because it’s about the Black Hills which are sacred to the Great Sioux Nation.” She continued, “And then gold is found in the Black Hills. The Indigenous people aren’t protected. The gold miners are protected by General George Armstrong Custer, even though it’s treaty land to Indigenous people. And then Mount Rushmore is carved into it.”

She said how important it is to “hear what we don’t hear” in historical curriculums. Fox Tree said there are many things we need to be teaching as part of the history of the United States. For example, the Fort Laramie treaty wasn’t followed and the impact is still here today. Both women agreed that whenever they hear the word “treaty,” they assume that it was not honored.

For more information:

A reading list from “Decolonizing: Placing Indigenous Peoples in the Conversation”

• Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles (Navajo) & Soong-Chan Rah

• An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

• All The Real Indians Died Off & 20 Other Myths About Native Americans by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes)

• Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge & The Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi)

• Gathering Moss: A Natural & Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer

• Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World by Jack Weatherford (Creek)

• History Smashers: The Mayflower by Kate Messner and Dylan Meconis

• Exterminate All The Brutes: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness & the Origins of European Genocide by Sven Lindqvist & Joan Tate (Season One available on HBO Max.)

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