The District’s curriculum’s shortcomings may be addressed by having my student’s research, write, discuss, and record podcasts of oral presentations on some of the following topics:
1) What are the lessons to be learned from the origins and evolution of the Reservation system, focusing from the late 1800’s to the threat of termination in the 1970’s, including learning about the Indian Wars of the later 1800’s? We will do this partly by viewing
Little Big Man
as a way to get some history and many tall tales. Students will learn the language of satire and irony, historical tragedy, and mythology. Irony doesn’t come naturally to teenagers. Jack Crabb is an insider outsider for reasons that the film makes clear, and is the perfect narrator for the film. Crabb is 121 years old when the film begins, and he speaks his memories into an oral historian’s tape: “I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb. And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, popularly known as Custer's Last Stand.” The film is a series of flashbacks: Crabb kidnapped by Cheyenne Indians, who call themselves the “Human Beings” and who adopt him as one of their own; Old Lodgeskins, their chief, becomes Crabb’s adoptive Grandfather. Crabb captured by white soldiers and brought back to white society to be raised by a cruel Reverend and his bawdy wife Louise Pendrake; Crabb as partners with a snake oil salesman; Crabb married to his Swedish wife Olga; Crabb meeting General George Armstrong Custer who advises them to go west after Crabb’s store fails; Olga is kidnapped by the Human Beings; Crabb returns to the Cheyenne looking for Olga; Crabb becomes Custer’s “mule skinner” while looking for Olga, and is shocked when Custer’s soldiers massacre an Indian village; Crabb discovers the young Sunshine who is pregnant by a dead Cheyenne Crabb; Crabb returns to the Human Beings with Sunshine. Crabb finally joins Custer as a scout. Saying more would give away too much.
The white characters in the film are used largely as objects of ridicule though satire. They act out counter-stereotypes. If whites have been largely presented in history or popular books as culturally, religiously, and educationally superior to Indians, the film turns that on its head: The Indians are not all alike: the Pawnee are presented as cruel and willing partners of the whites and endlessly trying to win approval from whites; Custer is sadistic and cruel; white soldiers all hate Indians; Grandfather is wise, gentle, and brave; most of the Human Beings are brave and just trying to survive the onslaught of the whites; the white snake oil salesman is an atheist who believes that lying to make a living is alright; Louise Pendrake becomes a prostitute. Jack Crabb is only as good, brave, and loyal as his upbringing by the Human Beings made him. There is practically nothing to recommend white society in the film. It serves the purposes of 1970’s white America, which had a bad conscience about the Indian wars of the late 1800’s. Indians’ main destiny in the film is to disappear. Nothing could be done to stop the whites.
Here are some illustrative quotes from the film:
Jack Crabb: Grandfather, I am glad to see you.
Old Lodge Skins: Glad to see you too, my son. My heart soars like a hawk. Do you want to eat? I won't eat with you, because I'm gonna' die soon.
Jack Crabb: Die, grandfather?
Old Lodge Skins: Yes, my son. I want to die in my own land, where Human Beings are buried in the sky.
Jack Crabb: Well, why do you want to die, grandfather?
Old Lodge Skins: Because there is no other way to deal with the White Man, my son. Whatever else you can say about them, it must be admitted: you cannot get rid of them.
Jack Crabb No, I suppose not, grandfather.
Old Lodge Skins: There is an endless supply of White Man. But there always has been a limited number of Human Beings. We won today... we won't win tomorrow.
Jack Crabb No, I suppose not, grandfather.
Old Lodge Skins: Come out and fight! It is a good day to die! Thank you for making me a Human Being! Thank you for helping me to become a warrior. Thank you for my victories, and for my defeats. Thank you for my vision, and the blindness in which I saw further. You make all things and direct them in their ways, oh Grandfather. And now, you have to silence the Human beings! We'll soon walk a road... that leads nowhere. I am going to die now, unless death wants to fight. And I ask you for the last time: to grant me my old power to make things happen.
Old Lodge Skins: [
Proceeds to lie down on the ground. After a few seconds, he props himself up and adds one more thought
] Take care of my son here. See that he doesn't go crazy.
2) As part of the historical record about the Indian Wars, students will evaluate classic photographs by Edward Curtis and others who recorded what they considered to be the remnants of traditional Indian Culture, along with text, from the book
Touch the Earth.
Students will learn how to describe photos in detail, and to analyze the effect that these images have had on identity, most especially white society’s identification of Indian life, and the implicit sense that Indian society was disappearing. Here is the book’s critique of the white man, which sounds very similar to the words of Old Lodge Skins in
Little Big Man
"We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and the winding streams with tangled growth, as 'wild'.
Only to the white man was nature a 'wilderness' and only to him was the land 'infested' with 'wild' animals and 'savage' people. To us it was tame.
Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with blessings of the Great Mystery.
Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it 'wild' for us.
When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the 'wild west' began."
-Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala band of Sioux
"The white people never cared for land or deer or bear. When we Indians kill meat, we eat it all up. When we dig roots we make little holes. When we built houses, we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshoppers, we don't ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don't chop down the trees. We only use dead wood. But the White people plow up the ground, pull down the trees, kill everything. The tree says, "Don't. I am sore. Don't hurt me." But they chop it down and cut it up. The spirit of the land hates them. They blast out trees and stir it up to its depths. They saw up the trees. That hurts them. The Indians never hurt anything, but the White people destroy all. They blast rocks and scatter them on the ground. The rock says, "Don't. You are hurting me." But the White people pay no attention. When the Indians use rocks, they take little round ones for their cooking... How can the spirit of the earth like the White man? Everywhere the White man has touched it, it is sore."
- Wintu Holy Woman
The photos and most of the quotes from
Touch the Earth
reveal mostly a white society’s elegiac view of American Indian culture and history. This is a presentation of what was or what may have been true about some aspects of tribal culture and values in the 1800’s, and is rooted in the values and concerns, especially guilt, of 1971 white America. What is left out of the book is any hint of tribal life and identity in 1971, when I bought the book as a high school senior. It fit perfectly into a Woodstock Festival, Earth Day, anti-Vietnam War, Kent State, Black Panther Trial, Outward Bound, anti-Nixon bookshelf, but it got me nowhere closer to experiencing American Indians as individuals or members of a tribe or culture, on or off the reservation, in 1971 or anytime since.
3) What were the origins and evolution of the concept of Tribal Sovereignty/Self –Determination? Charles Wilkinson’s book
summarizes both in the book jacket, as follows: “There are some three million Native Americans in the United States today. Indian nations hold reservations totaling 60,000,000 acres countrywide . . . These tribes are sovereign nations. They control their own schools, colleges, courts, police, banks, supermarkets, and more – and in their story lies a modern miracle.” (the failed efforts at “termination” and the growth of tribal sovereignty, both historically recent).
heart is a legal history rooted in mid to later 20
Century struggles, many successful, to 1) soundly defeat the termination/assimilation efforts by Congress; 2) recover tribal lands and reestablish other rights such as salmon fishing, religion, gaming, and self determination, and 3) reduce poverty, improve tribal health, halt massive adoption of Indian out of Indian families, create schools and colleges, and protect culture and religions. The book has value for its specificity and for its detail. Nothing in the book lumps all tribes together and stereotypes are banished in favor of discreet stories. This book may be the perfect link to Alexie’s writings, because he is an individual, with a particular tribal history and identity, defiantly so.
Touch the Earth’s
patronizing simplifications are discarded for the microcosmic and miraculous.
4) Although Alexie is listed here as a later focus of the Unit, because he is chronologically later and because by hearing him after the other materials, his writing makes sense. There is another option here, to begin with Alexie and to return to his writing throughout the other segments of the unit, as a foil, in order to critically engage with
Little Big Man
Touch the Earth
. How does Sherman Alexie express the essential human elements of reservation life and Indian identity and history as an insider’s outsider? For this, students will read from
in segments throughout, and finally will view
Alexie addresses stereotypes, one way by facing the fact of reservation alcoholism, and expresses universal themes, using his unique style. Students will read aloud, will analyze, and will record one or more podcasts. This will be the thematic heart of the unit.
“I'm fourteen years old and I've been to forty-two funerals.
That's really the biggest difference between Indians and white people.
A few of my white classmates have been to a grandparent's funeral. And a few have lost an uncle or aunt. And one guy's brother died of leukemia when he was in third grade.
But there's nobody who has been to more than five funerals.
All my white friends can count their deaths on one hand.
I can count my fingers, toes, arms, legs, eyes, ears, nose, penis, butt cheeks, and nipples, and still not get close to my deaths.
And you know what the worst part is? The unhappy part? About 90 percent of the deaths have been because of alcohol.” (
"Why are you leaving?"
"I have to go. I'm going to die if I don't leave."
I touched his shoulder again and Rowdy flinched.
Yes, I touched him again.
What kind of idiot was I?
I was the kind of idiot that got punched hard in the face by his best friend.
Rowdy punched me.
I hit the ground.
My nose bled like a firework. (
5) How will students express and analyze perceptions of native culture, using images and text from
Strong Hearts: Native American Visions and Voices?
popular visions of American Indians are challenged by artists and writers for whom self-representation is often as much a political as an artistic statement.” (from the book jacket) Three writers in the book write about overcoming stereotyped perceptions of Native Americans. Photographs and poetry reveal central traditions. The book “offers rare insight into complex questions of personal identity, race, politics, family, and society.” (book jacket). Students may benefit from a trip to the Yale University Art Gallery to view depictions of art by white artists of long ago events, and also by contemporary Indian Artists.