Indigenous history: ETHS teaches more than most but not nearly enough


Like the rest of the midwest, Evanston is full of Indigenous history. There are 35 government-recognized tribes in the midwest. In our area, the Ojibwe, Fox, Huron, Iroquois, Ottawa, Potawatomi and Sioux originate from the Great Lakes region. In Evanston specifically, the Potawatomi occupied the land until 1834 when a treaty was signed with the U.S. government, which took over the land and relocated the tribe to reservations. Later, the government bought the reservations for $1.50 an acre, forcing the tribe to Iowa, and let white settlers come in and establish what is now northern Evanston. 

The City of Evanston itself comes from a horrific history of genocide. Its namesake, John Evans, who helped found Northwestern and was the first president of its board of trustees, was responsible for the Sand Creek massacre, a mass genocide that killed over 260 Native Americans, where close to 700 men directed by Evans, destroyed the homes of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people in southeast Colorado. 

Currently, there are over 40,000 Native Americans living in the Chicagoland area, representing over 150 different tribes. Centers throughout Cook County, like the American Indian Center in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago, are spaces that allow room for educational opportunities and community events, with the American Indian Center even featuring a community garden. Senior Nimkii Curley is a Native American from the Great Lakes region and one of a very few students at ETHS who identify as Native American. “I grew up in a community of native people in Chicago, and I’d be over there (at the American Indian Center) with a bunch. I learned a majority of what I knew from elders in my community and other community members. A large portion of what I know is passed down orally,” he explains. 

In an attempt to teach this history and the cultures of Native Americans in Evanston, every year at ETHS juniors take U.S. History, where, whether they are in an earned honors or an AP class, a unit is devoted to Indigenous history in the U.S. This unit is taught differently depending on the teacher, so each student has a different experience learning this material. 

Junior Jude Foran believes his AP US history teacher has done an adequate job educating students on indigenous history.

“My APUSH teacher did a good job of teaching us about the oppression and injustice that people face and their impact on the country as a whole,” Foran says.

While Foran had an overall educational experience with this unit, he—as well as other students—noticed large gaps in the curriculum. Riordan Furr Presto took APUSH (AP US History) last year at ETHS. They were not satisfied with how the information was taught and were disappointed with the gaps left throughout this unit.

We learned virtually nothing about the culture. Usually, what they’re only teaching us is how our legal system made things that affected them. And often, it was a very quick ‘this is the law, and this was the outcome,’ never really focusing on the actual effect on the people.”

Similar to Presto, senior Lucy Garcia shares the belief that the cultural aspects of the unit were left out of the curriculum. She describes how land conflicts and wars between American settlers and Indigenous people were the focal points of this unit while Indigenous traditions and culture were ignored.

“I think that like a lot of times you don’t learn about traditions or the importance of those traditions. We just don’t learn a lot, in general. I think it’s mainly always about the war and the involvement with the U.S., but it’s never really like ‘Oh, like, this is the tradition before we got here. This was what they valued.’ So it never gets super-specific” Garcia says.

Not only this but throughout the unit, there were obvious areas of misinformation and offensiveness. “We had a midterm project where we had to summarize the knowledge we got from the unit, and that project was filled with drawings of Indians with feathers in their hair running around with tomahawks and teepees. I think that’s what would probably represent the current situation that we have right now. It’s that people are trying to do justice by teaching about Indigenous peoples; they just don’t know how to,” Nimkii Curley explains about his experience in US history. 

ETHS is in the minority when it comes to schools teaching Indigenous history. A survey done in 2021 looked at 27 states where members of federally recognized tribes live and found that only 11 of those states required Native American history to be taught in public schools. A majority of students in the U.S. receive little to no education on Indigenous history and culture. 

“We only did one unit about indigenous history, so a lot of our other units were from the perspective of European invaders and other things. So it kind of showed us who was on the other side of the oppression and injustice” Foran says about how this unit gave students the opportunity to gain a better understanding and look into the other side of Indigenous oppression.

It is clear that there are issues within not just this class’ specific curriculum but with the way Indigenous history and culture are taught about and discussed not just in Evanston, but nationally as well, and despite ETHS, being one of a limited number of schools in the country that devotes time to teaching Indigenous history, there is still much more work to be done. 

“I think because we grew up in the early 2000s, it was very much like a pilgrim and Christopher Columbus kind of education. It was very centered around Thanksgiving and Turkey hands and feathers, and like all this stuff and then I didn’t really know true facts until I got to my AP History class. But I don’t think that it was adequate enough,” Garcia reflects.