Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People

Chris McNutt
November 3, 2019
An Indigenous Peoples’ History consistently poses questions that counteract misinformation about Native communities, specifically stories that are usually taught in elementary school.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History offers a needed, yet often unheard perspective on United States history. As a former US history teacher it was always concerning that content standards rarely mention Indigenous people and therefore, most are misinformed. Not only does this work expel ignorance of Indigenous society, but provides valuable resources, activities, and discussions for the classroom. It is the antithesis of textbook whitewashing.

This book tells the story of the United States as a colonialist settler-state, one that sought to crush and subjugate Indigenous populations. In spite of all that was done to them, Indigenous people are still here.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History consistently poses questions that counteract misinformation about Native communities, specifically stories that are usually taught in elementary school. This lends itself to fantastic conversations on whose history is taught in school, and offers students a chance to recognize whose curriculum they’re expected to learn for standardized tests. After all, a quintessential point of critical pedagogy is to decolonize the curriculum and understand the underlying political motives of the education system.

And unlike many textbooks, this work does not spare discussions about modern events that are shaped by history. It brings up the intolerance of sports team naming, the lack of Native representation in Hamilton, and deciphers political rhetoric vs. reality. All of these are framed around easily adapted class discussions that speak to the heart of a history class: a voice for the oppressed, a deep understanding of the United States’ genocidal past, and an outlet for modern day political understanding.

Shortly after World War II, when the Holocaust was much on the minds of people around the world, the United Nations drafted an agreement that defined genocide in legal terms and listed crimes that can be punished under the agreement.

Generally speaking, writers avoid using the word genocide in history and textbooks about North America and the United States. Where have you seen the word used? What do you think might be the reason for not using it?

Discussions like these are needed in classrooms. Intolerance through neutrality is commonplace — our students need works like these to challenge the mainstream narrative that patriotism means the United States has never done anything wrong and our decisions are always steadfast. Without these voices, our country will continually raise a society that marginalizes historically oppressed communities and hastily rushes to conclusions about our past/present.

Dunbar-Ortiz’ work, alongside Mendoza and Reese, is easy to read and can easily be split up for student analysis. The features within are fascinating stories that sadly — as a history major — I was never informed about even at the university level. In many ways, the work opened my eyes just as it will for students.

Further, An Indigenous Peoples’ History doesn’t stop at an arbitrary point after colonialism like most United States textbooks do. Native people do not disappear. This work goes through the modern era and speaks of DAPL and Standing Rock. It traces each element of this nation’s history and demonstrates how the modern world intertwines itself in its past, often horrific, decisions.

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Pictured: Shosone at Ft. Washakie reservation in Wyoming, 1892

Due to its easy adaptability and readability, this work could fit into any established curriculum:

Again, the ability for students to critically interpret the curriculum and its flaws are so needed, and this work helps exposes the mainstream cultural narrative of the United States. It opens up discussions to what other histories have been erased and what lies are interwoven in the “standards.”

Nothing is more engaging than “going down the rabbit hole”, realizing that what one’s been taught isn’t the whole truth or isn’t the truth at all. Analyzing past stories and asking probing questions — I think of Squanto and the “Thanksgiving story” — how often do we ask why Squanto would know English in the 1600s? How many know that Squanto was kidnapped and taken to Europe as a slave, and escaped and returned to North America? It allows students to begin to see the world for what it really is, and ingrains a place for social justice to stand with those who are fighting.

I recommend this work to any educator to use with their students, as well as for their own knowledge of the actual Indigenous history of the United States.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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