Seattle Public Schools

American Indian Studies

Teaching Considerations

American Indian Studies: STI

General Considerations for Social Studies and History Teachers


When Columbus arrived in the Bahamas in 1492, and when Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot in English) landed on the mainland of North America in 1497, they arrived in a vast land, but also in an equally vast and varied cultural landscape that had been evolving for ten millennia.

The earliest verified archaeological evidence of the settlement of North America comes from two distinct sites, one in Pennsylvania and one in Chile. Meadowcroft Rockshelter, a 35-mile drive southwest of Pittsburgh, was used continuously for centuries but was abandoned by Indians around the time of the Revolutionary War. An amateur archaeologist, Albert Miller, first discovered artifacts in a groundhog burrow there in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the site was properly excavated by a team from the University of Pittsburgh. What they found was an unbroken record of human habitation that may stretch back 19,000 years. Tools, bones, campsites, and personal effects were recovered. The presence of 149 species of animals was established, along with evidence of early farming of squash, corn, and beans.

The Monte Verde site in Chile, also excavated in the 1970s, is a rare find: a relatively complete village that was inundated by rising water in a peat bog shortly after it was inhabited and therefore was held in a kind of anaerobic amber. Like the Meadowcroft site, Monte Verde has been dated to as many as 19,000 years ago. Together the sites are important and do more than help us understand how and when North America was settled; they also show that there were people in North America well before the Bering land bridge formed about 10,000 years ago, throwing into dispute the theory that North America was settled primarily by Asiatic wanderers over the bridge. Indian stories about our own origins almost all claim we came into being in our native lands.

The questions archaeology is struggling to explain—When and how was North America settled? Did the first people come across the land bridge 10,000 years ago? Or on earlier land bridges formed 30,000 years ago before sea levels rose once again? From Asia by boat earlier? From northern Europe? All of the above? Were there in fact multiple origins of the human species?—are rapidly being answered by ongoing genetic research. This research suggests that prehistoric Indians share a lot of DNA with Asian populations and, surprisingly, with European populations as well. It is quite likely that Europeans migrated into far eastern Asia and mingled with the populations there and that their descendants crossed over to the New World between 30,000 and 20,000 years ago. But this is all the science of migration, not the history of peoples.

Most Indians do not see themselves as merely the first in a long series of arrivals to North America; they see themselves as indigenous. And the belief in tribal indigeneity is crucial to understanding modern Indian realities. The rhetorical stance that Indians are merely one group of travelers with no greater stake than any other clashes with Indians’ cultural understanding that we have always been here and that our control over our place in this world—not to mention our control over the narrative and history of that place—has been deeply and unjustly eroded.

(Treuer, David.The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Riverhead Books, 2019.)

Key Concepts of Time, Continuity, and Change (The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian)

Many American Indian communities have creation stories that specify their origins in the Western Hemisphere.

American Indians have lived in the Western Hemisphere for at least 15,000–20,000 years.

The Western Hemisphere was laced with diverse, well-developed, and complex societies that interacted with one another over millennia.

American Indian history is not singular or timeless. American Indian cultures have always adapted and changed in response to environmental, economic, social, and other factors. American Indian cultures and people are fully engaged in the modern world.

American Indians employed a variety of methods to record and preserve their histories.

European contact resulted in devastating loss of life, disruption of tradition, and enormous loss of lands for American Indians.

Hearing and understanding American Indian history from Indian perspectives provides an important point of view to the discussion of history and cultures in the Americas.

Indian perspectives expand the social, political, and economic dialogue.

Indigenous people played a significant role in the history of the Americas. Many of these historically important events and developments in the Americas shaped the modern world.

Providing an American Indian context to history makes for a greater understanding of world history.

Basic Considerations

The phrase “Since Time Immemorial” is common in Indian Country. “Since the first daylight”, “Since the beginning of time,” and other like terms are used synonymously. Consider putting the phrase “Since time immemorial” at the beginning of any timelines or displays you use.

Native Nations of the United States are not considered “ethnic groups” and so are separate from ethnic studies in many academic arenas, including the University of Washington. They are sovereign native nations with a unique government-to- government relationship with local, state, and federal governments.  No  American ethnic group possesses that status. The state of Washington makes this clear in its adoption of ethnic studies under the Substitute Senate Bill 5023 Section 5: “The legislature intends that nothing in this act supersedes the use of the Since Time Immemorial: Tribal sovereignty in Washington state curriculum, developed as required under RCW 28A.320.170 (1) (b).

Avoid using “Pre-Columbian” when referring to the ancient histories of the Americas. Instead, use “precontact” or “precolonial.” While all three terms continue to define indigenous history based on European contact, the latter are generally considered more respectful.

Challenge the Bering Land Bridge Theory. Our textbooks erroneously present it as fact or the prevailing theory. A lot has been discovered since 2014, the latest edition of any of our middle school history texts. Moreover, the theory has been disproven in scientific arenas too numerous to mention here. There are many theories about when, how, and how often this land was peopled. If appropriate, share various theories. The traditional Native belief is that Native peoples were created on this land, just as Judeo- Christian creation stories teach about their own origins.

Avoid using “Prehistory” for two reasons: it defines history as what is written down and negates oral histories.

Avoid using written language as a criterion for defining civilization. This excludes indigenous and oral cultures around the world.

Southern Lushootseed font (Sl leSucit) has been installed on all SPS computers and laptops.

Totem poles are unique to Pacific Coastal tribes.  Welcoming poles are unique to interior Coast Salish tribes. In any case, they are a form of familial and territorial identification. Making them out of cardboard paper towel rolls is insulting, diminutive, and ignores their true purposes.

The term “American Indian” is a legal term for indigenous tribes within the United States (e.g., Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Indian Education), though both “Native American” and “American Indian” are used in legislation. Many Pacific Northwest Tribes use the term “Indian” as their official tribal names (e.g., Tulalip Tribe of  Indians). The term “Native American” grew out of the 1960s and 1970s political movements and is falling out of favor within Indigenous communities. (Do All Indians Live in Tipis? Second Edition, Smithsonian Books, 2018)

Historically, tribes in the Northwest had villages over vast geographic areas; there was rarely a singular territory for a singular people. The colonial “real estate-type” boundaries was codified with the assignment of several peoples to one reservation.

When teaching about world religions, you can incorporate the following:Since time immemorial, tribal people have acknowledged “The Creator” as the originator of all life on Earth, “Sin Wit Ki” in Sahaptin, the language group east of the Cascade Mountain Range.

There is no separation of church and state in tribal government. The spiritual tribal commitment to care for people, the land, water, and all life is what philosophically drives tribal governmental decisions.

Seattle Public Schools’ Native American Education program is also called Huchoosedah, a Southern Lushootseed word that translates roughly to the act of sharing or handing knowledge to someone.

Local Native activists to know:

  • Bernie Whitebear
  • Joe De La Cruz
  • Janet McCloud
  • Hank Adams
  • Ramona Bennett
  • Billy Frank, Jr.
  • Hoagie King George
  • David Sohappy
  • And many others.

Never assign “Indian names” to your students for any reason. Name giving is a sacred act and not merely the assignment of a legal name. Name giving criteria is different from tribe to tribe and region to region.

Give your identified Native students a “heads up” on upcoming Native content. Have a conversation with them about what is important for you to know about them.

Never ask about blood quantum (How much Indian are you?). Blood quantum is a racist construct developed by the United States federal government to decrease the number of American Indians enrolled in federally recognized tribes.

Make sure you attribute Native artists and their tribal affiliation when you use their artwork or recordings in your classroom. Stories and songs, as well as visual art, are intellectual property of the artist. To avoid the risk of cultural appropriation, non-Native educators should avoid putting native designs on non-Native objects. Native artists enjoy federal protection of their creations under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

Never refer to tribal regalia as “costumes.”  Costumes are for make believe and entertainment. Regalia, on the other hand, is worn by tribal people at formal and ceremonial events, competitions (pow wow dance competitions. for example), and other culturally or spiritually significant times.  This is, in part, why Indian costumes at Halloween are so offensive.

Avoid calling Native oral histories and stories “myths” or “legends.” It devalues their significance.  Traditional belief holds these teachings as true.  Calling them myths is akin to calling the Judeo-Christian creation story mythological: the validity of the belief is irrelevant; the impact is offensive.

Use the current fad of assigning “spirit animals” to one’s self as a teachable moment. In addition to cultural appropriation, it ascribes a vague quasi-religious practice to all Native cultures, which in turn perpetuates the “pan-Indian” singular identity of Native peoples. There are dozens of published articles that explain in more detail why the practice is offensive.

When you hear a student refer to a generic vision quest, treat it as a teaching moment. Students are likely unaware of the sacred nature of vision quests. Educate students about the deeply religious practice of vision quests.  “The people of the Salish Sea have a deep spiritual belief system based on the vision quest and acquiring of spiritual guardians and songs throughout one’s life.  Boys and girls prepared for years to be ready for their first vision quest.  When ready they went to special sacred places to seek their visions and songs.  During these days a person does not eat or drink, prays and sings and, if a person had prepared properly, a spiritual guide would come to them in the form of an animal or natural object and give special skills or powers, such as hunting or warrior prowess, ability as basketmakers or weavers, or perhaps special gambling or healing power.  These spiritual allies were considered guardians and one could gain many in their lifetime.” (People of Cascadia, p. 118)

Land Acknowledgments

If your organization wishes to use a land acknowledgment, we suggest the following:

“We would like to show our respect and acknowledge the Puget Sound Coast Salish peoples, past and present, on whose lands we gather today. The Suquamish Tribe and Muckleshoot Indian Tribe are the federally recognized Indian tribes of greater Seattle, under the treaties of Point Elliott and Medicine Creek.”