We Need Native American Lit in High Schools Every Day, Not Just Around Thanksgiving

The romanticized narrative of Thanksgiving continues to thrive in many schools, but “Native Americans have been speaking out and writing back against the colonialist narrative of Thanksgiving for as long as the American narrative has existed.”

I teach a senior English elective, titled “Race, Gender and Nationality in Literature."

It is important for me to teach both Native American history and the story of Thanksgiving in a socially responsible way.

Paired Texts in Native American History

For our first book of the year, we read “There There,” by Tommy Orange. As part of the unit, we brought in poetry by current U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, who is the first Native woman to be named Poet Laureate. Excerpts from Harjo’s memoir, “Crazy Brave,” and one of her poems, "A Map to the Next World," can be found here. In this activity, we paired reading Harjo’s poem with a discussion of the significance of maps. 

First, I read the poem in its entirety to the class. Then, I broke the students into four groups, based on the questions at the end of the poem. In their groups, they were responsible for answering the question for their set of stanzas. Each group read their lines and then answered the question. Finally, we discussed the final question on the handout (Why does Harjo choose to use the language of maps in this poem?) together as a class.

The Language of Maps

As a class, we then transitioned into looking at several maps. We looked at Native Land Loss Across the USNative Land Digital, and Map 2 of North Dakota: People Living on the Land. We talked about Native land loss over time and the reality that we all live on land that was stolen. Next, we looked up the address of our school and of different students in the class so that we could see whose Native land we were on. 

We discussed the different ways to conceptualize boundaries and land ownership: The U.S. is founded on the assumption that humans can hoard land and that boundaries can be erected or dismantled at will to signify whose land is whose. We looked at different areas of the country with overlapping territories and used this as a way to engage with different conceptions of humans’ relationships with land. 

We put our observations about maps into conversation with how Harjo thinks about land and maps in “A Map to the Next World.” With the last map, we went deeper with Native ways of engaging with the land. For this, we used a map drawn by a Blackfoot named Ac ko mok ki.  Ac ko mok ki does not replicate the topographical features of the land, but rather signifies how many days of walking from the Missouri River it will take to reach the Rocky Mountains depending on which tributary is used.

Broadening Understanding of Thanksgiving and the World

Finally, we turned to Thanksgiving. I asked the students to work with a partner to answer the following question, before sharing their thoughts with the whole class: How does all of this information change how you think about Thanksgiving? What is the holiday of Thanksgiving about for you? What do you think it feels like for Native Americans?

The goal of this activity was to help students broaden their understanding of how others see the world. Too often, we assume that others see the world the way that we do. Throughout this unit, and especially with this activity, I help students reconsider their assumptions and reorient themselves to be even more open to understanding the ideas of people whose world views may differ from theirs. Before we can understand fully how people arrive at different destinations, we must first more fully understand individuals’ origins.

Miriam Rock is an upper school English teacher at Friends Select School. She grew up in Philadelphia, earned a bachelor's in English from Yale, a master's in education from Penn GSE and spent several years teaching at Sandy Spring Friends School in Sandy Spring, Maryland. Miriam is passionate about teaching literature from communities that are traditionally underrepresented in English curricula. ...

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