Designing a syllabus for Native American history

The final assignment in my Native American seminar was to develop an undergraduate syllabus for a course on some aspect of Indian history.  I decided to design my class around early American history, since it’s what I’m most familiar with.

I felt pretty confident going into this project.  Having spent several years doing adjunct gigs before going to back to grad school, I’d designed my share of syllabi.  And since I’ve done a fair amount of reading on colonial America and the early frontier, I knew of quite a few Indian-related books that I could assign.  As you might imagine, though, it turned out to be quite a bit harder than I expected.

In fact, there was a sense in which my background was actually a handicap, because it had predisposed me to think about early American history in particular ways.  As I’ve mentioned before, we tend to conceptualize the history of early America in simplistic terms of geographical and temporal progression.  You’ve got your Spaniards in Latin America at first, then your French around Canada and the Mississippi Valley, and then it’s Anglos moving from east to west from there on out.  Once the English get settled in at Jamestown, there’s a tendency to ignore everything west of the eastern seaboard until more colonists start pushing into the interior.  For too many of us, vast swaths of America don’t really have a “history” until Anglophone settlers show up.

If you’re trying to frame history from a Native American perspective, this simply won’t do.  Indian societies had been rising, falling, and coalescing across the continent for centuries before white settlements appeared in North America.  And over the course of the many decades it took Anglophone settlers to make their way to the Appalachians, the Mississippi, the Rockies, and the West Coast, history wasn’t at a standstill.  Native people in what we vaguely think of as “the West” had been encountering, trading with, fighting against, and living alongside Spanish and French settlers (and each other) during all that time.

I’m ashamed to admit that I forgot all this when I started picking readings for my syllabus.  My first slate of assigned books all dealt with Indian-colonist relations in the eastern U.S.  It didn’t occur to me to break out of that mindset until my professor gently reminded me that I was ignoring a good two-thirds of the continent.  Oops.

Periodization also proved trickier than I anticipated.  I knew that I didn’t want to cover all of Native American history down to the present, but every cutoff date seemed to present difficulties.  I thought about stopping with removal, but that sort of implies that Indians were no longer around or ceased to be a factor in American history after their relocation west of the Mississippi.  Bringing things forward to the end of the Indian Wars presented the same problem.  I knew I didn’t want to try to cover everything up to the present day, but I didn’t want to turn it into a syllabus for an early American course that happened to focus on Indians, either.  I finally settled on a rough cutoff date of ca. 1850.  It moved things past removal a bit, but without getting bogged down in all the tumultuous events that happened in the late nineteenth century.

With my end point in hand, I began accumulating a small pile of possible books to assign.  I wanted to avoid the mistake of geographical limitation I’d made with my first proposed reading list, but I also needed books accessible enough to assign to undergrads.  Here are the selections that ended up on the final syllabus I submitted to my professor:

  • First Americans: A History of Native Peoples, Volume I by Kenneth W. Townsend and Mark A. Nicholas.  Whenever possible, I like to have a main text around which to organize a class.  This book seems to hit a lot of the important sub-topics, and it’s concise enough to allow for plenty of supplementary readings.  Luckily, the first volume also ends at the exact same cutoff date I’d chosen for my course.  (Well, to be honest, the fact that this volume ends in 1850 played no small role in my decision to use that date as my end point.)  I therefore decided to use First Americans for coverage of the material and then set about looking for monographs and shorter readings for “uncoverage” of important issues.
  • What Caused the Pueblo Revolt of 1680? edited by David J. Weber.  One of the biggest problems I ran into was a shortage of accessible, concise books on the early Southwest.  This collection of essays filled a geographic void, and I also liked the idea of a collection of essays by different historians debating the cause of an important historical event.  I made this book the basis of a writing exercise designed to get my hypothetical students to consider history as an active process of answering questions and weighing contested explanations.
  • Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America by Daniel K. Richter.  After whittling down my list of books on the early history of eastern North America, this outstanding book was the last one standing.  Richter takes the conventional narrative of early American history and flips it around, keeping Indians at the center of the story.  It’s a great read, and it engages so many important topics that this one text effectively replaced three or four of the books I had on my preliminary list.
  • The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent by Kathleen DuVal.  Here is where trying to create an “Indian-centric” course with its own geographical perspective came into play.  DuVal looks at the American interior before its penetration by Anglophone settlers, showing how there were places where Indians maintained control of the terms of contact and exchange well after the arrival of Europeans.  If you want a corrective to the notion that Indians had to retreat ceaselessly before the vanguard of colonization after 1492, this book will do the trick.
  • Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 by Theda Perdue.  I had this book on the list from the get-go, and it stayed there.  Perdue covers Cherokee acculturation and change over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, demonstrates why these processes had a unique impact on women’s roles and prerogatives, and does it all in a very concise and readable manner.

I supplemented these books with additional short readings: primary sources, excerpts, and scholarly articles.  First Americans is pretty skimpy on pre-Columbian material, so I included some chapters of Alice Beck Kehoe’s America Before the European Invasions on the Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods.  I also incorporated some of the primary source selections from Colin Calloway’s First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, a few doses of ethnographic observation from Coronado and John Smith, some other short secondary readings, a viewing of the Trail of Tears episode of We Shall Remain, and a trip to the McClung Museum’s excellent exhibit on Native Americans in Tennessee.

Looking back on the finished product, I was surprised at how different it was from my first sketchy outlines.  It ended up taking a much wider geographic perspective, incorporating a lot of new ideas, and leaving out a lot of material on Indian-colonist relations that I’d planned to use.  But I think the final version was a significant improvement.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to use this syllabus in a course of my own, but the assignment made me stretch some historical muscles I’d never used, and it was a heck of a lot of fun.



Filed under Graduate School, Historiography, Teaching History

3 responses to “Designing a syllabus for Native American history

  1. Jimmy Dick

    I really enjoyed The Native Ground. That was an eye-opening exploration of what was going on in the heart of the continent. The interaction of cultures was fascinating. I particularly loved the contrast between the way she described the region and its inhabitants as De Soto’s men described them and what was observed by Europeans a century later. In my American History to 1865 survey class I spend a solid lecture block and lesson on Native Americans and how the European arrival impacted them. This is the core of that description.

    It is a survey class, so I have to goalpost things, but I make it clear that this was not an uninhabited wilderness, but one teeming with people with varied and diverse cultures with a history that was just as rich as any Old World one. I then show how the disruption introduced by Europeans severely altered practically every aspect of Native American life and how the described cultures would collapse and be replaced by tribal names more familiar to them. Designing a course from scratch on this topic would be a joy as would teaching it. I hope you get the chance to do so.

  2. In my American Indian history course at Portland Community College, we have to go from “1491” to the present, which is a ridiculous challenge to cover that much ground. But I use Colin Calloway’s First Peoples as the general text, and then two other books as specific case-study-type experiences: Calloway’s The Shawnee and the War For America, and Andy Fisher’s most excellent Shadow Tribe, which is about Columbia River Indians and their identity. I used to use Richter, but it’s too sophisticated in its approach for my poor undergrads. (Also,although it’s too big to be assigned to undergrads, Calloway’s magisterial One Vast Winter Count is fantastic. He’s a great scholar and a great writer.) I start out by having them read “1491”, the Atlantic magazine article from 2002 which is a short version of Charles Mann’s excellent book of the same title. That article demonstrates Jimmy’s point above very well.

    With regard to the problem of geography that you mention, that’s very difficult to overcome simply because of the source material. I tend to follow the “traditional” approach, but I take great pains to repeatedly point out the artificiality of this. What I do, for example, is when we get to the 1850s and Plains Culture, I use the first hour to go back to the 1500s and 1600s to show the dispersal of the horse, and the migration to the Plains from other locations by the Comanche, Cheyenne, Lakota, etc. Elliot West’s Contested Plains is excellent for putting together the Cheyenne story here. Likewise, when we get to the Treaties of 1855 in the Columbia Plateau, I spend an hour or two examining traditional lifeways and history of the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perse, etc., before moving into “historical” times–Lewis & Clark, the Oregon Trail, the Whitman “Massacre”, etc.; but I discuss all these from the Indian POV (as much as we can understand it). It ain’t perfect, but it seems to answer.

    I’m grateful to see you had the same problem with Pueblo material as I did. I will take your suggestion above very thankfully.

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