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  • Emily Bharatiya

A few thoughts on where to start

If you are teaching American history where should you begin?

Most American history textbooks begin with Europeans discovering North America. The brave settlers. Their large ships with valiant sails and hearty crew. But it is not where our story begins.

The history of the North American continent and its people began thousands of years before Europeans ran their ships ashore the Caribbean Islands and the North East coast. We all know this. However, to begin history studies here as a teacher isn't as easy as opening a textbook or buying a history curriculum.

If you want to do better, start with the people who were here first. The Indigenous Nations of Turtle Island. (Turtle Island is the original name for North America.)

That sounds easy, but its complicated.

There are over 562 federally recognized Indigenous tribes within the United States. One can't just sit down and plan out how to teach the history of 562 nations real quick. I have yet to find a book written for children in a narrative style that tells all of the histories, perspectives, narratives and stories of the many Nations and their people.

An Indigenous Peoples History of The United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is an excellent resource for adults and I recommend it to anyone who wants to teach about the history of America from an Indigenous perspective. I believe Dr. Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children's Literature (follow her blog if you don't already) is working on an adaptation of Dunbar-Ortiz's book for young readers. I look forward to its publication.

In the meantime, if you are looking to start your U.S. history studies counter to the norm, before the white sails of the European conquest, here are a few tips on how to begin.

1. You are not going to be able to teach the history of all 562 Nations in depth. Just let that idea go right now. It would take a lifetime. You can study many of them, and you certainly should include Native American narratives in all of your American History studies, no matter the time period. Native American history IS American history, so whatever time period you are studying Indigenous Nations would have been involved.

An easier and more practical way to start (especially if you are beginning with young elementary students) is to study the different Nations via geographic region. The map below shows the North American Continent divided by geographic region. Within each region are the names of a few (by no means all) Indigenous Nations around the time of European contact.

Map by National Geographic Society

2. Study the history of the different Nations in your geographic region first. Visit the websites of local tribes to learn more about the history of your own state. Here is a good place to start.

3. When you visit the Pre-Contact book lists at The Parallel Narrative, pick a few books for your area. Choose books that represent the history of the region, traditional stories and narratives that portray contemporary lives of Native Americans.

4. Be tribal and Nation specific as often as you can.

If you are a teacher who prefers using a curriculum and would rather not hack your studies, here are a couple of resources for you to look into.

And for your own education in order to better serve your students might I suggest reading these.

You won't get it right all the time. But the more you know; the more you grow. Continue to learn alongside your students and you will all have a better understanding of our nations story, its past, its present and its future.

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