How State Standards Represent Indigenous Peoples

In this Q&A blog, education researcher Kate Shuster asks Sarah Shear of Penn State University-Altoona about how indigenous history is taught in U.S. classrooms and why many states’ standards need to be revamped. 


In “Rewriting History—for the Better,” a recent story for Teaching Tolerance magazine, writer Dave Constantin states, “American Indians have been largely erased from mainstream social studies curricula. A few states are leading the way toward making history instruction more inclusive—and more accurate.” This trend prompted me to reach out to Sarah Shear, an assistant professor at Penn State University-Altoona. Her research focuses on the representation of indigenous peoples in social studies standards and education.

Can you tell me about your background and how you became interested in indigenous studies?

I am often asked this, particularly because I'm not indigenous. Going to school in Connecticut, I grew up between the Mohegan Nation and the Mashantucket Pequot Nation. I was interested in their histories. I also I remember not learning about those cultures in school. This transformed into more complex thinking about American history, colonialism and the power of imperialism as I grew older. Now, I've transitioned into thinking about how young people learn about indigenous cultures. I’m interested in how our formal curriculum, standards and textbooks make opportunities while also erasing much of what we should talk about when we learn about indigenous peoples.

You've recently published a paper that examines the way that state standards represent indigenous peoples. Can you summarize your findings?

I worked with colleagues at the University of Missouri to examine state standards from 2011 to 2013. We found a tremendous decline in coverage of indigenous peoples and perspectives after the year 1900. About 87 percent of the standards that specifically included indigenous peoples and cultures were pre-1900. That erases indigenous peoples from current history.

That's incredibly problematic because indigenous peoples are across the country and the world right now. They are culturally prosperous, revitalizing languages, continuing efforts for sovereignty and treaty rights, and making big strides economically and environmentally. If we go strictly by the standards, students will not learn any of these things.

The standards present indigenous peoples as outside of the Euro-American experience—in conflict with the development of the United States. Indigenous peoples are generally pitted against colonialists as the enemy. This starts out as a very simplistic and problematic story of cooperation with the coming of the Mayflower and the Thanksgiving story. Then that cooperation turns into conflict.

That is the narrative that's presented throughout the standards leading up to the 1900s. After you get to the Louisiana Purchase, the Homestead Act, Westward Expansion and the reservation system, everything is settled and gone. This story implies that indigenous peoples were "dealt with” as they moved to their reservations. The standards (Washington excepted) do not use the word genocide regarding indigenous peoples. Some states mention events like the Trail of Tears, the Navajo Long Walk, Wounded Knee and Sand Creek. But these are not presented as genocide. The standards do not give students a complex opportunity to learn about settler colonialism or the lasting impact on indigenous peoples.

However, there is great work coming out of Montana and Washington to address these gaps. We’re at a time where it’s possible to change.

Why do you think it's important for all students in all states to have access to this history?

It's really important to include indigenous peoples in every aspect of our teaching and curriculum. We should present materials to students across the country no matter where they live to learn about the rich, complex histories and cultures of indigenous peoples. We should also learn about their contributions and fights for sovereignty and treaty rights and broader contributions to the United States. I’m often asked the question, "Did Native Americans ever live here in [insert state]?” That’s where we start. It’s really important that the entire nation have this conversation.

There was not a blank map when the Europeans came. There were hundreds of complex societies here from coast to coast, north and south. Students need to understand the impact that colonialism had historically and in the present. It's not just Washington, Oklahoma, Florida or Alaska. It's everywhere.

What should teachers do to become activists on this issue so they can, themselves, advocate for reform of curricula and state standards?

Silences are repressive. Teachers should talk about where we see the silences in our curriculum. Where are the voices that are left out? We all have to unlearn what we were taught. That’s especially true this month with Thanksgiving. I think it's really important that teachers ask themselves, "What is the standard?" or "What is this textbook promoting me to teach?" They should ask, “Is there something that's missing? Is there a voice missing? Is there something in this material that is problematic?” These are difficult conversations to engage because you're talking about the foundation of the American system, which is in colonialism.

I ask that teachers with questions to contact me ( and @SBShear) … to learn to create meaningful learning experiences for our students that do not recycle the problematic lessons that we learned as children. These conversations are really important.

There’s some debate about how we talk about indigenous peoples. Why do you choose the language you use?

[T]here is not a consensus on which terms to use or not use. This is complicated further with Europeanized names. For example, we say Navajo instead of saying Dine, the traditional name, or Sioux instead of Lakota or Iroquois instead of Haudenosaunee.

We should be conscious about the names that we use. I use the term indigenous when I'm talking about the larger group of nations and peoples and cultures that were here before the arrival of the Europeans. That comes from my reading of the work of two prominent indigenous scholars: Cornel Pewewardy and Linda Tuhiwai Smith. They say the term indigenous is both positive and troubling. Like Native American, it is a very broad way of incorporating hundreds of very unique nations and cultures. To me, the term indigenous gives credence to the current struggle. It acknowledges that these cultures and peoples were here before the Europeans came. 

Terms like Indian are always linked to the conversation about Columbus—also an important conversation. We can talk about these terms in productive ways, especially when we see a debate arising over sports mascots. I encourage teachers to talk with students about why we use certain names. It’s a great learning opportunity. 

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Shuster is an independent education researcher and evaluator who has worked on multiple studies assessing curricular and co-curricular reforms.