Today, I gave a history lesson to some high school kids on the bus ride to the train station.
They were studying for what appeared to be a really broad strokes exam about Indian removal in the nineteenth century. It’s sad to say, but this is a major improvement in my area of the country. The only education I got from the public school system regarding Native America in my K-12 years was such that related to Pilgrims.
But I was still surprised about the information these kids didn’t know, information that I just sort of absorbed in the years before college. I didn’t learn about reservations, the Indian Wars, Custer, Crazy Horse, the Navajo, the Cherokee, or the Sioux in school but a lot of it I somehow came to know in the the course of eighteen years worth of life before I started studying indigenous history of the Americas in college.
The mobile history lesson began when the kids behind me were going over vocab and defined ‘reservation’ as an appointment made for a specific time.
You don’t know what an Indian reservation is?
I had to butt in. I HAD TO. I couldn’t let them - at fourteen or fifteen years old - have NO idea what a reservation is. How can you… Just. No. They kind of just looked at me like I was crazy when I interrupted, but then I explained that I had a degree that focused in this area (y’know when I wasn’t busy reading up on Soviet Communists), and then it clicked.
They then started asking me questions. Things about the test and I helped as the issues arose. (There was a lot of pronunciation correction. They had to show me the word in the book before I realized they were trying to say ‘Sioux.’) And then after the basics - court cases, population relocation, genocide, and ethnic wars - they were just plain curious. Why did the Indians have to get pushed West of the Mississippi to start with? How could Andrew Jackson get around a Supreme Court ruling like Worcester v. Georgia in the first place? Why didn’t the government just let Indians raise their own kids? Why did they make them move onto small pieces of land when no one else was living in the Midwest anyways? How could the government get around treaties that they were the ones to write?
None of which can be answered in a bus ride. I did the best I could. I really did. But covering the basics of the social/cultural components behind historical Indian policy is not really something I am equipped to convey to fourteen year olds in ten minutes. But I was able to get through the basics, I hope.
‘It sounds wrong, because it is wrong’ I told them. And the things we learn about in history don’t just stop affecting the present at any given point. What we do now affects the future. And the government did and does a lot in the way of Indian policy.
One girl just kind of stared at me in disbelief, like this stuff couldn’t be true. Look it up, I told her. I will, she said. This is really interesting. I can’t believe they don’t teach us any of this.
Me neither, girlfriend. Me neither.