I grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts. As a child there in the 1970s and 1980s I was bombarded with colonial history. So much so that when I chose history as my undergraduate major I stayed far, far away from courses on Colonial America and focused instead on those that covered post-Civil War society and politics. I took only one class in colonial history at college and one required seminar in Early America as a graduate student.
Nowadays, as a professor at a community college, I teach aspects of Colonial America every semester in US History, Women’s History and Black History. As an historian I’m often distressed when I reflect on the history I learned as a child. I’m keenly aware that my students, many of whom also went to grade-school in New England, were taught a sanitized version of colonial history in which pilgrims and Indians feasted together through long, cold winters. As a result, I’m constantly looking for new ways to help my students develop a more sophisticated understanding of the history they were introduced to as children.
The month of November is a particularly good time to ask students to reconsider the historical lessons learned in elementary school. For those of you, like myself, who are not experts in the field of colonial or Native American history, a great way to expand students’ understandings of the myths and historical misrepresentations wrapped up in our yearly Thanksgiving celebrations is to bring in an expert. Earlier this month our college invited representatives of the Tomaquag Museum to speak to students at two of our four campuses. Tomaquag is the only museum in the state of Rhode Island dedicated specifically to the history of native people. In addition to bringing numerous artifacts to share with students, museum educator Silvermoon LaRose offered an alternative historical narrative that helped students to break down some of the common misconceptions they have about native life in Rhode Island.
I was struck during the presentation by how little my students knew about their own communities. In my US History I course, for example, students study Tecumseh and his movement to unify native people in the early nineteenth century. We study Indian Removal in the southeast and the Trail of Tears. My choice of topics on native people in those periods has stemmed, in part, on a need to cover a geographically diverse history of the United States. As I listened to educators from the Tomaquag, however, I realized that in my efforts to look at life in Ohio, Indiana, Georgia and other places not New England, I had inadvertently missed the opportunity for students to learn more about the ethnic diversity of their own communities.
My initial thought was to make changes to the content of my course for next time around. When I considered what the students told me that they gained from the visit from the Tomaquag Museum educators, what I realized is that students relish the opportunity to hear native voices. Talking with students after the visit, for example, yielded discussion of their interest in the musical instrument one of the visitors played and the artifacts that the indigenous historians had shared with the students. My students were enthusiastic about having heard authentic native voices telling the stories of their history. Instead of changing next fall’s plans for readings and lectures, therefore, I’m in search of other potential classroom visitors who can provide my students with diverse voices and historical narratives. Suggestions welcome.