What if children learned about Native American history?

Today I was lucky enough to join my daughter on a school field trip to a Kumeyaay heritage center. She and her class have been studying the Kumeyaay and Native American Culture as part of a 3rd grade learning unit. When I was about her age, all I learned about Native Americans was through the lens of the California Missions. These missions, according to my teachers “saved” the Indians (I prefer the term Native American or Indigenous Peoples). We learned about the wonderful architecture of the Spanish (umm, I think the Native Americans were actually enslaved and forced to build the missions). We learned about how religion “saved” these “heathen” people (uh, excuse me for asking, hasn’t religious “saving” been responsible for countless deaths the globe over, including Native American genocide?) We learned of Father Junipero Serra who, according to the San Diego Historical society:

“found missions at San Diego and Monterey, to establish the Spanih right to California and convert the Indians to Christianity. He would spend the rest of his life in Alta California.

When Father Serra founded the first of California’s missions in San Diego, he was 56 years old. He had asthma and a chronic sore on his leg that troubled him for the rest of his life. Serra himself established nine missions, with a total of twenty-one missions eventually being established along the El Camino Real, from San Diego to Sonoma, a distance of 700 miles.

This western-lens version of history, still disseminated in history books (and at the above website) is problematic in so many ways – um, why did the Spanish have a “right” to California and isn’t “convert” a rather nice term to use for enforced religious belief or death? Is “founded” the right word for missions that were built by enslaved labor—work that led to the untold deaths of vast Native Americans in graves that at the missions went unmarked as, you know, the “non-believers” didn’t deserve recognition even though they (through no choice of their own) made the building of these missions possible? I guess this use of “found” is similar to the way Columbus “discovered” America…

Anyhow, didn’t Daddy Serra ever think that that “chronic sore” might be a physical warning that the heinous acts of enslavement, rape, genocide, etc being committed against the Native Americans were not so “religious” and wonderful?

I am glad that my daughter’s school doesn’t teach the glorified, false history of the California missions that I learned (although saddened that many school’s still do). Instead, she and her classmates learned today about the importance of respecting each other and the earth, that chiefs could be female or male, that colonizers are not ‘founders’ to be celebrated. This type of lesson is certainly not taught often enough or in near enough depth because, of course, it doesn’t go along with the whole agenda of brainwashing U.S. children to be good citizens (ie capitalist loving consumers). What the heck would United States of WalMart do if we raised a generation that really practiced the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra in the Native American way rather than in the “be kind to the environment, buy more shit and put it in your recycle bin” way…?

Today’s trek with the 3rd graders reminded me again of Paula Gunn Allen’s recent death. In these last few days, I have thought of her work and what it has meant to me very often. The Sacred Hoop is a feminist classic.

It also reminded me of a student of mine from a few semester’s back, an education major, who wrote a paper about new ways to teach the California Missions unit. She framed her proposed lessons based on the belief that religion is a benevolent force and missions are a wonderful testament to the ‘saving’ work of the bible. No matter how much I tried, I could not get her to see the other side of her argument, the western-lens framing of her stance, the ways in which her belief system blinded her to the history of Native American genocide with which religion was complicit. It worries me that students now training in our colleges that hold such unwavering religious beliefs will go out into our school’s as ‘missionaries’ indoctrinating youth into a view of history that glorifies religion and downplays the atrocities committed in the name of god (insert other deity moniker of your choice here). It reminded me of my son’s third grade teacher who wore religious themed t-shirts emblazoned with sayings like “God is great!” Too bad we don’t have a separation of church and state — we never have of course — and too bad for the children in this country that we do not have a separtion of education and religious indoctrination.

I am thankful that today my daughter was shown that the Kumeyaay are great and that the colonizers, with their big old bibles, were pretty damn mean.

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5 thoughts on “What if children learned about Native American history?”

  1. Great question — what if instead of the regular Thanksgiving crapola that is taught schools taught about current events and living Native American activists, theorists, writers, etc.? Instead, kids learn ‘the pilgrims and the Indians were such good friends’– reminds me of the saying, “with friends like these, who needs enemies’

  2. Ahhh… I just read over your post and have been sitting here “thinking” about each section. You bring up a very good topic, which can open the can of worms you may say.

    There is a lot that I would like to discuss about your topic but after much thought I realize that it would take some time to cover. As an Anishiinaabe (original person) Ojibwe/Chippewa from the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa I agree that true history should be taught to the young. No matter how horrible or degrading it maybe, history is very important – especially if you don’t want to repeat the “bad” stuff.

    I enjoy reading your blog.

  3. Weez,
    So glad you enjoy reading the blog!

    If after your ‘thinking’ about this topic you decide you want to discuss it further, I hope you will add your ideas here.

    Your reference to yourself as Anishiinaabe makes me think of a recent trip to Oregon/Washington and a number of discussions I had with my relatives up there. Many of them uses the term “Indian” (which I personally don’t like due to the whole Columbus error). A few use “Native American” and this is the term I tend to use if I do not know more specifics — ie whether a person is Ojibwe, etc. But, I think this ‘umbrella term’ has its failings as well because this was not ‘America’ until after colonization/genocide and thus using the term American seems itself a sort of imposition of imperialism. Do you think Aniishaabe has any chance of catching on as a term? Do you think this would be a better ‘umbrella term’? I would love to hear your thoughts.

  4. I wonder why the Indians would have stuck around the missions if the situation was as bad as the current revisionist historians have claimed? It seems to me that since many of the Indians in the California tribes were at the time living lives of that amounted to daily rooting for any food and sustinance they could find; maybe many of them saw the Missions and the priests as a way to get food.

    Oh, what a no brainer! Indians NEEDED something from Europeans that they didn’t already have. And maybe the good Padres really did help the Indians in the best way they knew at the time, and also in a manner that their strong religious faith required.

    Guess what? When a hunter gatherer culture, any hunter gatherer culture, is subjected to a more effecient and evolved culture of farmers, ranchers and industrialists— one culture is going to quickly diminish while the other continues to flourish. If Anglos, French and Spanish had not settled in North America, somebody else would have. Maybe the Russians. Maybe the Japanese. But there is no doubt that the story would have been the same. And just as the Romans in their day were more culturally evolved than the vast northern European tribes… we all know what happened then don’t we?

    So quit crying about the history and grow up people. History is what it is. If Indians got the short end of the stick it was probably coming that way anyhow. And if you really want to talk about genocide in the Americans, why not start with what the Aztecs were doing to every other tribe they conquered first?

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