Guest Post: A (Pedagogically, Geographically, Historiographically) Vast Native History Course


Screen Shot 2019-10-31 at 7.04.48 PM.pngToday is the first day of Native American Heritage Month, and our guest post comes from Jessica Taylor, Assistant Professor of Oral and Public History, and Edward Polanco, Assistant Professor of Latin American History, both at Virginia Tech. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, Taylor is currently working on her first book manuscript, which examines Native landscape in the colonial Chesapeake. Polanco is a graduate of the University of Arizona, and his current book manuscript examines 16th- and 17th-century Nahua healing ritual specialists in Central Mexico. The following are keys to success identified by Taylor and Polanco in their development of a course on Native History at Virginia Tech.

Screen Shot 2019-10-31 at 7.05.00 PM.pngWorking through the first course proposal at a tenure-track job is intimidating, and more so when the topic is as enormous and fraught as “Native History.” To develop this course with care, we sought input and advice on and off campus as the process unfolded. These thoughts originated in a meeting between Virginia Tech’s Native students’ group, Native@VT, the American Indian and Indigenous Community Center on campus, and the Department of History. We wanted to share some of our ideas and strategies as we continue to develop our Native History class and advocate for a more visible Native presence on campus. This has put our Department’s and University’s commitment to diversity into action.

  1. Ask for input from stakeholders at each stage of building a syllabus.

The development of our course began with the meeting between the history department and Native@VT, although the suggestions from Native students and the community center’s director Melissa Faircloth are applicable beyond a Native History class. Some were easy to implement, like a land acknowledgment in each syllabus and on the department website, cross-listing classes with other departments, and facilitating networking between students, faculty, and early career Indigenous scholars at other institutions. Other ideas will take time, connections, thought, and care to realize, including bringing local Indigenous high school students to Tech, challenging Columbus Day, researching Native students and staff on campus and developing exhibits, and the central business of teaching history. In Faircloth’s words, Native history is “not just trauma,” or a “monolithic” history of genocide and defeat. Instead, and as students present pointed out, courses could emphasize Native people as citizens of the twenty-first century, American Indian Movement activists, educators, and advocates for sovereignty. Throughout the conversation, concerns over framing and public image surfaced again and again. For Native students on campus, what is taught in the classroom about Native people can often result in a racialized encounter on campus. As we develop projects and courses that involve Native people, we seek input on how to align our work with what student organizations are already doing, as well as  how to address emergent controversies involving Virginia’s Native people.


Students from one of Polanco’s courses complete a project centered on the cultural and social significance of food items that did not exist in Europe before 1492. Students not only completed historical research, they cooked a dish using authentic Pre-Columbian ingredients.

  1. Bring Native history to general education.

Instructors of upper-level classes know that when courses built around more specific topics are assigned higher course numbers, enrollment by non-majors and passing enthusiasts for the Modern Middle East, History of Medicine, or in our case, Native History, can be limited. These students are surrounded by a sea of history majors who probably already know that the topic is worthwhile. It can feel like preaching to the choir at a time when the need for anti-racist and anti-colonialist material seems so pressing. Arguing that the class fulfills a general education requirement, which students fulfill for a well-rounded education regardless of major, can bring non-majors through the door. We made a case for a Native History course counting towards our university’s “Equity and Identity in the United States” and “Reasoning in the Humanities” requirements for all undergraduate students, which provided incentive to take the class and participate fully. In the future, we hope that it will count towards a still-developing interdisciplinary minor in Native Studies, comprised of courses in humanities, social sciences, and quantitative methods that fulfill General Education requirements AND the requirements for a minor. Dependable enrollment encourages the administration to consistently offer these courses, and engagement in curriculum-building with people in other departments and your undergraduate affairs office is helpful with respect to developing an on-campus support network. If you can handle the paperwork and the long timeline, the payoff is promising.

  1. Engage in place-based learning.

Place-based education (PBE) emphasizes immersion in local resources and learning through community projects. Whether you call it service learning or citizenship, experience with community leaders and organizations can teach students about all kinds of subjects while also providing an opportunity to break from the classroom setting many find alienating. Many place-based alternatives are familiar to historians; for example, history students at Virginia Tech plug into regional cultural organizations and help plan local events, organize archives, and conduct research for exhibits and social media. Studies show that students retain motivation longer in classes that implement place-based education, and outcomes are strongest among certain groups of marginalized students. What does that have to do with Native history and Native people? First, it’s been proven to work for Native students. Among the most successful studies was the Alaskan Rural Systemic Initiative, which incorporated Indigenous knowledge systems, informal education, and input from community elders as the basis for formal curriculums. Some Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) see PBE as a way to incorporate Indigenous cultural practices. For non-Native students in a history classroom, PBE represents a move away from learning about Native history to learning through Native history. Assign readings from local Native authors, plan day trips to nearby historic sites and museums, or ratchet things all the way up to a full course redesign.


A visit to Special Collections and University Archives affords students hands-on engagement with primary sources related to Native history at Virginia Tech’s Newman Library.


  1. Make Indigenous people from the past and present the focus of the course.

One of the greatest challenges that instructors of Native Studies face is invisibility. Encouraging students to recognize and appreciate the existence of Native and Indigenous people, past and present, is paramount. This can be achieved by asking students to undertake research projects that connect historical issues faced by Indigenous communities in the past with current events. We are also including Indigenous people in both Latin American and Anglo-American contexts in order to emphasize cultural diversity, examine tribal and national politics beyond the U.S. context, and compare factors across a broad range of struggles and geographies. In essence, by placing current events in historical context (albeit often buried in the back stories), students can begin to see the long-lasting and pervasive impacts of colonialism.

For some project ideas at all levels, go to, the National Park Service’s education section, or search the internet for culturally responsive pedagogy!

A disclaimer: In our position at a research-focused institution with abundant resources, our ability to seek solutions is greater than elsewhere. Professionals at other institutions might have little say in the curriculum offered by their department or college or understandably lack the time or staffing to move through slow and involved course development. Still other institutions might have fraught connections with Indigenous groups, or an unclear sense of their campus community’s historical relationships with Indigenous students and community members. We hope that something in here resonates as we write our syllabi for the spring.

2 responses

  1. Because I often visit The Junto searching for a new book for my classes, I wanted to add Native History recommendations for others also on the prowl.
    Before I go into what Eddie and I have used in our own classes, I want to point to the Standing Rock Syllabus, which highlights dozens of Native authors who have written short and timely pieces as well as books.
    1. For the American History survey: West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 by Claudio Saunt
    West of the Revolution details encounters occurring across North America—in modern-day San Diego and Colorado, for example—and follows Native people as they travel for trade and diplomacy to Russia and Cuba. Saunt plays with the American Revolution’s timeline to expand students’ geographic horizons beyond the Eastern seaboard and Anglo-America. Students complained that Saunt writes at length about the importance of beavers, but they found the writing engaging and that this book’s structure makes all the new material digestible.
    1. For methods and research seminars: “Anthropologists and Other Friends” from Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Deloria
    This is an old one, but for budding and well-intentioned researchers in a university setting, it’s an Indian perspective of research, a quick kick in the teeth, and a reminder to check your privilege. This section is so short that I assign it at the beginning of class and use it as a discussion piece.
    2. For a Latin America-inclusive class: Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest by Matthew Restall.
    Restall’s work foregrounds the messiness of Spanish colonization and continued Native presence and resistance. This book developed from a series of undergraduate lectures, so students remain the core audience.

  2. An excellent textbook to use in Native history classes is Colin Calloway’s “First Peoples.” It is beautifully written, well-organized, and includes primary documents and picture essays at the end of each chapter. I’ve also found that historical fiction works really well in Native history classes–for example, Diane Glancy’s “Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears” and D’Arcy McNickle’s “The Surrounded,” which focuses on the allotment period. Charles Hudson’s “Conversations with the High Priest of Coosa” is an excellent book for introducing students to pre-contact and early contact indigenous cultures, beliefs, and worldviews (for chiefdoms living in what is now the American South). I also like to use autobiographies like Charles Eastman’s “From the Deep Woods to Civilization” and Mary Crow Dog’s “Lakota Woman.” These are all very student-friendly and accessible and help to encourage students to think about historical events from an indigenous perspective.


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