Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

American Indian Unit Prompts Self-Reflection

by John Hastings
To teach any subject well, you must have a passion for it. Children can almost smell a teacher’s attitude towards their subject, and students value what their teachers value. So when it became clear that I would be teaching social studies to the entire fourth grade, I knew I had to immerse myself in the topic.
And it was a topic that, frankly, hadn’t interested me very much before. Native Americans are often taught in schools only in relation to white settlers—the happy Indians sitting down with the thankful pilgrims in brotherhood, a picture far removed from reality. And I also felt hesitation to explore an uncomfortable topic—the historical mistreatment of the indigenous population. It was something I couldn’t fix, an injustice that favored my ancestors and, hence, me. How could I go about this?

Whether I was comfortable or not, I knew I would have to raise my level of expertise, so I dove in. The Indigenous Peoples of Connecticut, a scholarly archeological work on the history of human habitation in Connecticut, was a good starting place. Children of the Longhouse, a novel by indigenous author Joseph Bruchac, illuminates life in a Northeastern Woodland village before contact with Europeans. And the internet is rich with resources, most importantly the voices of indigenous peoples telling their own stories.

The more I learned, the more I appreciated the richness of the culture and its very different view of what is important in life. At the heart of their existence is a culture of gratitude. The Thanksgiving Address is a constant in their lives, in which they give thanks for all that The Creator has given them. This culture of thanks gives rise to respect, and respect for nature is at the heart of their approach to life. Constantly giving thanks creates a feeling of connectedness to all that surrounds you.

Their dependence on each other enriched this connectedness. Almost all of what they had and used was made by someone they knew. I thought about the socks that my grandmother had knit me many years ago. Every time I wore them, I thought about her and felt that special connection we had. Native peoples were surrounded by objects filled with the spirit of people they knew.

Gratitude, connectedness, community—weren’t these values we try to teach at New Canaan Country School? These things we try to instill in our students were at the very heart of American Indian society. When compared with the hierarchical, acquisitive culture of the settlers, didn’t the indigenous way of life look pretty good?

In discussing this with a friend of mine, he sent me a quotation from a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1753:

When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make an Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

These people, whose population we had ravaged by disease, whose lands we had stolen, who we had made war on, whose culture we had tried to obliterate—did they understand how to live happily better than we? What can we learn from them, especially in the hyper-divisive times we live in? And how to present this to fourth graders?

The first thing I decided was important in my teaching was to show Indigenous Peoples as having agency—they were not dreamy naifs living in the woods, grooving with nature and staring at the stars. They were highly intelligent people who lived meaningful, connected lives in a sustainable way. My second instructional decision was to hold off on teaching about the decimation of Native culture until the end of the unit. Leading with the near-destruction of their civilization would make them look like hapless victims without an appreciation for what had been lost. 

So that is what we did. The kids learned about giving thanks to a tree before you cut it down, about taking only a third of what you find, about leaving your possessions out to be borrowed freely, about making decisions by consensus. They came to appreciate the position of respect afforded to elders and the decision-making power of women in tribal affairs. They learned that the first great democracy in this land was created by the Haudenosaunee, and learned to call them by that name, their own, rather than Iroquois, the name the French used for them.

Only then did they learn about the 80% of the Indigenous population killed by diseases imported from Europe, about the Trail of Tears that forced people off their ancestral homelands, about the Doctrine of Discovery that justified the taking of land from non-Christians, about the Indian boarding schools that attempted, in the words of one of their founders, to “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Most importantly, they learned that Indigenous People are still here. Darlene Kascak, member of the Schaghticoke Nation, told them traditional stories and invited the class to join them on their reservation in Kent for the Green Corn Festival in August. The Haudenosaunee Council still meets in the longhouse of the Onondaga Nation, the Keepers of the Central Fire. And they learned that we should always acknowledge those who came before us and give thanks to them for stewarding the land for thousands of years before our arrival.

The culture of the traditional people of this land, despite the many efforts to obliterate it, lives on. I am always moved when I hear a Native person refer to “my white brothers.” Brothers?  Really? After everything that has happened? The desire is for conciliation, not revenge. That is something to truly admire.

Mr. Hastings teaches the American Indian Unit with Maria Sette and Kristin Quisguard, his fellow 4th grade teachers. 

View a video of the 4th grade play.
Read a story about the unit.
New Canaan Country School admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin and are afforded all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, age, sex, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry, or disability in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, financial aid policies or any other school-administered programs.