Teaching The Truth

What we teach our children matters

What we teach our children matters

I guess most everywhere now children are back in school and, as teachers, it’s time to reflect on what we are teaching. It’s particularly important when the topic is history. Recently, the online magazine, Indian Country Today Media Network, published an article by Christina Rose titled, “10 Things Teachers Should Never Do When Teaching Native Kids.” Since most teachers don’t know whether or not they are teaching Native children, I would suggest the ten things pertain to ALL CHILDREN.

To rehash her points here is counterproductive, if you can’t find the article, email me and I will send it to you. Having said that, it is important to talk about a few of the mistakes which frequently occur during first semesters. You know, that’s the time of year we celebrate Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Native American Heritage Month. Of course, these errors don’t just happen in school. They happen everywhere untrained educators try to explain American Indian history and culture.

If you are lucky enough to have Native children in your class, and know it, Ms. Rose’s first point is appropriate. Never ask your Native child to speak for their Race. Being singled out in class could be embarrassing for the student, but it is also important to remember that there are 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States and all have different beliefs and cultures. It is unlikely one child could speak for all of them.

If you know the students tribal affiliation, and you have received permission from the parents, and the child is willing, it would be okay for him or her to speak about that tribes culture. The Virginia Department of Education did an excellent job of using a ten year old boy to speak about his tribal customs and the existence of other tribes in the state.

Another of Ms. Rose’s issues was, Don’t have students choose Indian names for themselves. This might seem like a harmless activity and an excellent way to explain the naming process, but it is an extremely personal ceremony performed by a person chosen by the child’s parents. A Menominee parent from Wisconsin, Ritchie Plass, after hearing from his daughter that she had been asked to choose a Native name, wrote a poignant letter to the teacher and school board about the ceremony. The letter is part of the article and should be read.

In short, if you don’t understand American Indian history and culture, don’t opt for stereotypes. Contact someone who can help. In states with tribes, call the tribal information office and ask if they could provide a speaker. In Georgia, contact the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns. Google them or email me and I will give you an email address.

A few years ago, James Loewen wrote a book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. It is not on my recommended list because it involves much more than American Indian history, but I highly suggest every parent and teacher read it. Remember, Thanksgiving didn’t happen the way it is taught in our schools, and Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. Don’t compound the problem. Do the right thing, Teach the Truth.

Who Is Indian And Who Decides?

Wilma Mankiller

So far in this series, we’ve discussed Native American origin theories and the proper way to address them. Today we’ll look at who is an Indian, and who has the right to make that determination. The question almost seems silly, but that’s far from the truth. As you can see by the quote on the picture above, the late Wilma Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee, thinks an Indian is an Indian. An individual should know, right? Not in America.

In an attempt to unravel “Indianness,” we need to go back before the European invasion, when most tribes traced their heritage through women. This practice is called matrilineal lineage. It didn’t matter who the father was, your membership into the tribe came through your mother. Whether she bore a child naturally or adopted one, that child was a tribal member. For example, John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee during the failed battle for their land in Georgia, was only 1/8th Cherokee by today’s blood count. His mother, who married a European, was one quarter Cherokee because her father was a Scotsman, and her mother was one half Cherokee because her father was European as well. To the tribe, though, he was Cherokee because of the mother’s kinship lines.

Another example is Quanah Parker, last Chief of the Comanche. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was a white girl captured by the Comanche from her father’s ranch in Texas. She was adopted into the tribe and married Peta Nocona. Because she was adopted by a Comanche woman, she was considered Comanche, as was her son. No Native ever spoke in terms of blood quantum until the Europeans (Americans) got involved.

How did it become so confusing that today there are multiple law suits challenging tribal affiliation? That’s a very long story and can be covered another time, but it stems from our intent to “Americanize” Indians. The two main characters in this story are Alice Fletcher, an anthropologist, and Henry L. Dawes, a Senator. Both were ardent supporters of American Indians and were committed to improving their lot in the mid-19th century.

Fletcher worked with the Omaha Tribe and misinterpreted a conversation with one of the Chiefs who indicated he wanted to go back home. He meant return to the way things were, and she believed he was asking for a “home.” She became convinced the answer to the Indian problem was to turn them into farmers so that they could share in the American society.

Her idea caught on in Washington, and Senator Dawes became the father of the Allotment Act which passed in 1887. The Act provided that every member of various tribes would be allotted a certain amount of land in his name and the implements necessary to farm. We’ll talk much more on the impact of the Act later, but suffice it to say, it required tribes to list their membership. The resulting “Dawes Rolls,” became the definitive answer as to whether or not someone is Indian. It didn’t matter that many tribal members didn’t list themselves, or that many errors were made in recording the list, it became the rule.

Since then, of course, most tribes have created their own governments and constitutions and all have set up the standards by which one can be considered a member. Today, one must apply to the tribe and be vetted by the membership committee for acceptance. It is also possible for a tribe to dis-enroll someone if it believes that person does not meet all the criteria. If you do become a member, you are awarded a membership card, a blood quantum card, which states your percentage.

So, I’m sorry, Miss Mankiller, today, you can’t be an Indian unless you can prove it by having a card. In fact, those with Native American heritage who do not have cards refer to themselves as “undocumented.”

Native American or American Indian?

Head dress

So what’s correct? Either? Neither? Or something altogether different? To learn the answer, we need to travel back to the ’60’s when, as a people, we were trying to distinguish ourselves and also identify others. Culture groups like African-American, Asian-American, Latin-American, and others surfaced, so it seemed natural to call America’s first citizens, Native-Americans.

The plan worked for several decades until the category became overcrowded with the inclusion of Alaskan-Americans, Hawaiian-Americans, and even Samoan-Americans. How could we ever make a distinction? It became even more confusing when someone realized that you didn’t have to be Native-American to be native-american. In fact, a person born in Cleveland this morning is a native-american. He or she was born in America, therefore native. Eventually, a new designation, American Indian, was adopted.

Why not? After all, when Columbus, who believed he had reached India, saw the first indigenous person, he declared, “Los Indios!” Not being Indians from India, and sharing the Native-American moniker, the term American Indian appeared to fit perfectly. Under most circumstances, either term is acceptable and are frequently used interchangeably.

Still, there are issues. When speaking of a “people,” either term may be used. But, when speaking about a person, The preferred method would be to use his or her tribal affiliation. “Andrew is a Cherokee,” or “Sara is Seminole.” If you don’t know their tribe, call them Andrew or Sara. If they are of a mind, they will tell you if they think you need to know.

Wait, there’s still more. Because every tribal name we use came from someplace other than tribal members themselves, we need to be sensitive to an individual’s feelings. For example, Cherokee is the name used by Creek Indians to describe people who spoke another language. By the way, Creeks didn’t call themselves Creek, either.

Cherokee called themselves “Aniyunwiya,” The first people. Very few members still use that name, but many prefer the Cherokee pronunciation of their name, “Tsalagi.” Remember, it’s their choice to determine how they should be addressed.

Finally, we  need to clarify one more thing. Is Native-American or American Indian an ethnic group? On many government forms, it looks like the answer might be yes, but it’s not. Either is a term we attach to indigenous people for simplicity. They in no way, mean there is an internal cultural or pan-national unity, American Indians are composed of more than 500 hundred different nations and cultures with different identities. Homogenization does not exist.



  When I first began my research into American Indian history and culture over two decades ago, the question of origin was a non-issue. Everyone knew they crossed the Bering Land Bridge 12,000 years ago and spread across two eagerly awaiting continents.  Little did I know that, while the rest of us were taking this for granted, a war was raging among academics. Not a new war, but a long and lingering one that goes back several centuries.

The rudiments of the Bering Straight theory began as early as the sixteenth century, but was refuted by America’s first archaeologist, Thomas Jefferson. Writing in 1785 and using the language differentiation of our indigenous residents, Jefferson reasoned that “…for two dialects to recede from one another til they have lost all vestiges of their common origin must require an immense course of time; perhaps not less than many people give to the age of the earth.”

In 1892, geologist George Frederick Wright again challenged the theory in his study Man and the Glacial Period. He was soundly redressed by ethnologist William John McGee who called Wright’s work “absurdly fallacious, unscientific, and an offense to the nostrils.”

My introduction to the battle came with my reading of Vine Deloria, Jr.’s Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Deloria, one of the most prolific Native American writers and philosophers of our time, charges that the theory is not science, but dogma perpetrated by those more interested in protecting the theorists than advancing science. Obviously, he was roundly challenged and shuffled off as a fringe group member. The question then becomes, is the theory based on science, or is it dogma?

As I mentioned earlier, the theory has been around for centuries, but what locked it in was the pronouncement in 1927 by Alex Hrdlicka that it “…was the only logical explanation.” Hrdlicka was the curator of the Smithsonian Physical Anthropology Department and the foremost authority on Neanderthals. His status and fame made his declaration effectively law. How powerful was his edict? Dr. Thomas Lee of the National Museum of Canada from 1951-1955, discovered artifacts dated to 30,000 years ago. Instead of cheering, the scientific community blacklisted him for more than ten years.

When, in 1975, Dr. Thomas Dillehay from the University of Kentucky was invited to Monte Verde, Chile to verify a find more than 12,500 years old, he declined. Fortunately, he later reconsidered and did verify that the artifacts, far down into southern Chile, were authentic. Since then, discoveries have been found near Delaware which are more than 25,000 years old, and a sight along the Savannah River in South Carolina which claims to be 50,000 years old.

So what is the argument that keeps the Land Bridge Theory alive? One word, Contamination. Some way, some how, noted archaeologists from all over the world have screwed up their digs and botched the findings. Archaeologists fighting, name calling, and rebuking one another is one thing, but what about Jefferson’s language theory? Linguists have long argued against the land bridge idea. Below are a couple of note:  

 Edward Sapir, 1916 “Ten Thousand Years seems a hopelessly inadequate span for such linguistic differentiation.”  

Franz Boas, 1940 “American Indian languages are so different that it seems doubtful that 10,000 years is sufficient time for their differentiation.”

Finally, Johanna Nichols, Professor of Linguistics at California, Berkeley, wrote in 1990, using six different mathematical formulas, that it would have taken at least 35,000 years for Native Languages to have evolved to the extent in which they have, and probably as much as 50,000.

Max E. White, Georgia’s Indian Heritage, says that “The date of the appearance of man in the New World is unknown  and probably will never be known.” To this, American Indians say “We are here and have always been here ,placed by the Creator.” Who really can argue?

Up and Running Again

After a few weeks of searching, I finally found a blog page compatible with my experience and my webpage. Word Press seems to have all the tools I need to present my ideas and images in a clear and professional manner. At any rate, I hope so.

Over the next several weeks, I will be discussing some of the issues that have come up in my classes on American Indian History and Culture at The University of North Georgia. In addition, I will comment on current hot topics effecting Native Americans both on and off the reservations. If you have questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to ask.

My intention is to publish at least bi-weekly and with each post, I will suggest additional reading material in support of the topic. If you hadn’t had an opportunity, please refer to my contact page for a list of books and web links. Thanks for your continued interest.