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Start the Conversation: Colonization

By Meredith Schramm. Image by MacKenzie Alexander 

In this guide, we expand on an important topic featured in the Susan La Flesche Picotte issue: Colonization. Omaha tribe member Meredith Schramm shares tips and ways to approach this sensitive issue with your kids.

Guest blogger Meredith Schramm is a teacher and member of the Omaha Nation, or the Umóⁿhoⁿ people. A mother and writer, Meredith instructs students, teachers, and the general public about Native Americans from a Native perspective. She’s also the author of Native American Lesson Plans: A Look into Natives Today, a must-have resource for any classroom.

I remember getting my college acceptance letter from my first-choice school. I was proud of myself and my family was proud of me. They knew how hard I worked. 

Growing up, my parents knew I was going to have to prove myself to my peers. There was an expectation of straight A’s on top of being active in school activities. I lettered in two sports, made the National Honor Society, and won awards with the school newspaper. I knew I deserved to be at college, and the college agreed. 

My excitement came crashing down the first few weeks of college. I was told multiple times that I probably only got in because I was Native. They said it so matter-of-factly. I could tell they weren’t trying to be mean—for them, it was what they really thought. And for them, it wasn’t meant to be an insult. However, they didn’t know me, and they didn’t see how hard I worked in high school.

And as the comments continued, for years, somewhere along the line I began to believe them. 

In all of these situations, these people—my friends—never thought what they were saying was wrong. Because for them, the stereotype of Natives not being “enough” has been a part of the narrative since Native Americans’ first contact with the colonizers. 

America has a sad history of colonization against Indigenous people. And right now, the topic of how to teach that history is a big one.

I am a middle-school history teacher, as well as a mother, and a member of the Omaha Nation. At the beginning of this past school year, I asked my students, “Why do we learn history? Why is it important?” Of course, my students’ answers were, “To learn from it, so we don’t repeat it.” My next question was, “Do you think we are doing a very good job learning from the history we are taught?” As students, they of course said yes because they couldn’t visibly see any wars or battles being fought. The United States of America is this great nation, and nothing in their life made them anxious or worried. However, the battles and issues that tribes were fighting long ago are still being fought today. So, have we really learned anything?

The history of the Indigenous people of this land is very complex. However, in most textbooks, it is condensed into about 20 pages. We learn a basic version usually written from a single viewpoint, and then as adults, we don’t understand why Natives are still fighting for freedoms. When I talk to others about the history of my people and why court cases, land rights, or even mascots are important to me, nine out of ten times I get the response, “But we are honoring Natives,” or “It happened a long time ago, why does it matter?” 

Why are people trying so hard to hold on to these stereotypes? Why are we so unwilling to change them? Because again, that narrative is so strong.

Why is teaching perspective important? In my 7th grade history class, we talk about a few themes throughout the year. One of those is perspective. When I was younger and fighting with my siblings, I can still remember how I felt when my parents didn’t seem to understand my side of the story. That feeling of frustration doesn’t disappear when we get older. If anything, it gets more intense.

Nobody likes to feel unheard or misunderstood. That’s why we can't just bear to see one perspective taught and justified by, “they didn’t know better,” “it was acceptable back then,” or “it happened a long time ago.” Teaching history this way is useless as it undermines the entire reason that makes learning history so important.

How do we talk to our children? First, we as parents and adults have to understand our history—not the whitewashed history that has been commonly taught in public schools. We have to look at history through different perspectives to understand and empathize with the people that have been suppressed. 

1. Lead by example. We can’t tell our children to be nice to others and to listen to or respect others’ opinions, and then turn around and do the complete opposite. Children see and hear everything. Our children need to see and hear us seeking to understand opposing viewpoints and engaging in respectful dialogue.

2. Embrace differences. Over and over again in history, when colonizers would come upon a group of people that were not like them, colonizers fought with them. When they saw Natives, it was the same thing. They worshiped differently, and spoke and dressed differently. Because of that, Native Americans were forced onto reservations, then forced to assimilate. 

Did we learn from our history? Are we now accepting of those of other backgrounds? Do we embrace those of different faiths? Talk to friends and neighbors of different cultures and faiths and ask questions. 

3. Stop the stereotypes. I think part of why we don’t understand each other or aren’t willing to understand each other is because stereotypes are socially acceptable. And I think we are a little ignorant as to how stereotypes, even seemingly positive ones, are harmful. I’ll discuss a few of the most common:

Thanksgiving. We all know the romanticized version with the “Pilgrims and Indians.” But, the Wampanoag tribe (the tribe that had the Thanksgiving feast) does not celebrate Thanksgiving. For them, it is a day of mourning. After this “feast,” their land was taken and many members of their tribe died fighting for it. 

We can talk to our children about how it must have been sad for those people and how we can use the day to focus on things we are grateful for. The Thanksgiving story taught in history books gets so much attention because it was a positive interaction (one of very few). This is much easier to teach, as it doesn’t require any hard truths or an acknowledgment that most interactions were decidedly less pleasant.

Native costumes. The Native American culture is also a religion. Natives were barred from practicing their ceremonies until 1978 (43 years ago), when the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act was passed. The headdress, feathers, and many other aspects of Native regalia have religious and cultural significance. Many cultures also have similar clothes worn for cultural and religious purposes. When your child wants to be Pocahontas for Halloween, explain to them that out of respect for the culture and religion, they shouldn’t, and help them find another costume. 

4. Talk to your children about the history and people of places you visit. Have you ever taken your family on a trip to see Mount Rushmore? It’s pretty impressive what they did to the mountainside. However, did you know that land was given to the Lakota Sioux in a treaty in 1868? Later, when gold was found in the hills, the land was taken back by force. In 1980 (41 years ago), the Supreme Court ruled that the land was stolen and still Native Land. The tribe was awarded money as compensation for the land. However, the tribe still has not accepted the money because they would rather have the land than the money. The federal government still refuses to honor its agreement with them. 

Our country is filled with the rich history of its original peoples. Acknowledge the land they lived on, teach about it, and tell your children they are still here.

5. Add culturally appropriate books to your shelves. Having books in your home with culturally appropriate content that kids can learn from is an easy way to begin conversations. Be willing to talk and answer questions, and learn together if you don’t know the answers. To find culturally appropriate books, go to the website American Indians in Children’s Literature.

We are still here. Native people have survived wars, relocation, and boarding schools, and are still fighting those same battles today. In history textbooks, students learn about how Natives lived, and what Natives wore and ate. The textbooks mention some disagreements and battles, and then conclude that the Natives were given land to live on, and access to better food and education. 

They were saved, the problem was solved, and everyone got what they wanted and lived happily ever after, right? Wrong. History is more complex than that. We can't gloss over mistakes and expect people to learn from them. Nor can we expect Natives who feel silenced or misunderstood to accept a curriculum that has little in common with their truth. For Natives, their storybook was closed before they got a chance to finish writing it. 

We need to start talking about how colonization has affected Natives today. We need to ensure that everyone, even Natives, has a spot at the table. Otherwise, our Native children will grow up believing that they don’t have a voice. The way we teach and talk about Natives—an uncivilized people who didn’t have proper education and needed to be “saved” by colonizers—has an impact on how they are viewed today. 

It took me a long time, well after I graduated from college, to believe in myself again. To remember that I did belong there, and I was enough.