When I was in elementary school, U.S. history was nothing but a celebration. We made paper plate boats for Columbus Day and stereotypic feathered headbands or pilgrim hats from construction paper for the classroom Thanksgiving party. Students weren’t taught the whole story, the complicated and often ugly story.

But now we are the teachers. We are positioned to truly make a difference by opening young minds to more than one narrative. But how do we talk with our students about systemic racial discrimination, persecution, enslavement, and genocide? In order to have this ongoing conversation with our students, we must get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

So, we are educating ourselves and discovering some indefensible footnotes to California history that students won’t find in their textbooks. For a quick deep dive into the treatment of indigenous people in California, read “Short Overview of California Indian History.”  http://nahc.ca.gov/resources/california-indian-history/ It will give you a very brief course in the historical treatment of Native California Indians.  

Did you know that California’s first elected governor promised to continue the war of extermination of the “Indian race” until the indigenous population was extinct? How is that for a campaign promise?

Did you know that in the 1850s the California State Legislature funneled more than $50 million (in today’s dollars) to exterminate native Americans by offering bounties for body parts? Twenty-five cents a scalp. Horrific.

Did you know the beautiful California missions were built from slave labor under a system determined to destroy indigenous civilization? Meanwhile, the soldiers were busy raping indigenous women and spreading new diseases that managed to decimate an entire population by 93 percent in less than a century.

As we start a new school year, this is what we are trying to do in the classroom:

  • Tell the truth. We do limit the amount of detail in an age-appropriate way. In our California Native American Series, our close reading on the Yokuts tribe deliberately lacks gruesome descriptions of atrocities committed against the tribe. That way you can flesh out the narrative based on your students’ maturity.
  • Encourage discussion and use it as an opportunity to practice respectful conversation. For guidance, we liked “Teaching Students how to have a Conversation” by the Blue Brain Teacher. Check out the blog: https://thebluebrainteacher.com/conversation-students-talk-tools/?utm_source=tpt
  • Celebrate both the ancient tribal culture and also the modern life of people of indigenous heritage. Some kids don’t realize a modern-day tribal member may be sitting at the desk next to them!
  • At the same time, strive to connect through shared experiences. In our tribal texts, we discuss things kids are interested in like food, games, chores, etc. Then we demonstrate them in the classroom.
  • Give our students ample creative opportunities to “tell the story” from minority points of view. For example: find ways to honor important native Americans for their impact. 
  • Use today’s news (protests, vandalism, statue-toppling) to delve into the complicated and often ugly history of oppression.

We would love to hear what you are doing in your classroom, what is working and the hurdles you have faced.