Even as families around the country prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving -- a holiday based around supposed good relations between New England settlers and a Native American tribe -- new research reveals the extent to which Native American history is largely left out of American classrooms.
While she was a doctoral student, Sarah Shear, now an assistant professor of social studies education at Pennsylvania State University in Altoona, studied how the histories of indigenous peoples are explained in schools. In comparing the academic curriculum history standards for all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Shear found that most states portrayed a glossed-over version of Native American history.
Shear decided to conduct her research, which will be published soon in the Theory & Research in Social Education, after teaching a class of undergraduate students studying education at the University of Missouri and realizing they knew relatively little about the histories of indigenous peoples.
"I gave a class about indigenous stereotyping. Some students looked perplexed and asked the basic questions: How many indigenous peoples are still alive, what is a reservation, do indigenous people still live on reservations?" Shear said over the phone. "I wanted to take a step back and, as a former public school social studies teacher, I wanted to see what was going on."
Shear's research looked at state history standards available in the 2011-2012 school year. She found that nearly 87 percent of state history standards failed to cover Native American history in a post-1900 context, and that 27 states did not specifically name any individual Native Americans in their standards at all.
According to Shear, state standards tend to provide an uncomplicated version of U.S. history in regard to indigenous peoples, leaving out the more unsavory aspects of colonialism.
"I think especially in the telling of U.S. history, there is a specific narrative that really does not lend itself to incorporating the voices of people who are not considered members of the dominant cultural group," said Shear. "There always has been and continues to be people from all parts of the education system and greater American community that support a master narrative of the U.S. that's unified and complication free."
Shear's research found that the indigenous figures most often mentioned in history standards were Sacagawea and Squanto. However, she found that standards very rarely required this history to be told from the perspective of indigenous figures. Many states talk about indigenous peoples using broad terms such as "Southwest or Pacific Northwest tribes" rather than using specific terminology. Only Washington state uses the term "genocide" to describe the experiences of indigenous peoples in the United States.
In all, Shear said, the standards allow students to graduate from the K-12 system with little understanding of what contemporary Native American culture and life looks like.
"This master narrative presented in U.S. history, it's as though indigenous people did not matter, which is so far from the truth," said Shear. "This idea that the expansion of the U.S. westward to California was this natural progression, this destiny, that it was meant to happen -- the consequences of that are huge, the consequences of that are so often left out of the narrative."
Ultimately, Shear said, her students at the University of Missouri were just as frustrated as she was about the education they received regarding indigenous peoples.
"They're so frustrated that they never learned and I quote them, 'I never learned what really happened' especially given [Thanksgiving]," said Shear. "They learned a very specific narrative of Thanksgiving and never learned the greater complex narrative of not only the relationship between the indigenous people of New England and the settlers, [but] how those relationships changed over time."