The Trail of Tears & Teaching History

My hometown made the national news and in a way that doesn’t reflect well on it. Our cross-country sports rival is known as the Indians and this past Friday evening we played our annual “county championship” football game against them. Our cheerleaders, not realizing the historical significance of the infamous “Trail of Tears” painted a large banner warning the Indians they were about to face Trail of Tears #2.

This caught the attention of a local student who took a photo of the banner and posted the event online. The story was picked up by area news outlets and from there it went national. It’s no surprise the matter has become the subject of local discussion and our school board has scheduled a meeting to investigate what happened and hopefully use it as a teachable moment and not a lynching of those involved. I know many of the people involved and I know for positive that their purpose was not to make light of one of the most horrible incidents in America’s long and nasty history with Native Americans.

Theirs was a simple case of sports rivalry and using a phrase to poke fun at the competition. These were young adults participating in a long-standing competitive event, not a bunch of white nationalists trying to strike hurt at the heart of an entire ethnic nation.

It’s been ask many times why these high school students weren’t aware of president Andrew Jackson’s genocide like removal of Eastern Tribes to the Oklahoma Territory, resulting in the deaths of thousands? Well, one reason could easily be a result of the pressure placed on history teachers to not teach controversial history.

I taught American History and Government for twenty-seven years. I began my career teaching at Villa Park High School in what was then America’s most conservative county, Orange County, California.

There was hardly a week go by that one of us in the American History Department wasn’t called out regarding our covering any subject that reflected badly on America. One example was our teaching about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Another was talking about the Army’s massacre of Native-Americans at Sand Creek and showing photos of mass burials at Wounded Knee. The majority of parents in that community were conservative and wanted their Spic and Span version of history taught.

They didn’t like having their high school juniors told that Washington didn’t really chop down that cherry tree or toss a coin across the Potomac River. Nor did they like the mention of Thomas Jefferson fathering children with his favorite slave, Sally Hemings.

It’s been twenty-years since I taught in our local schools and I know that I took my walk to the office more than once. My students were juniors and seniors and it was my belief they deserved being told the raw truth of our history. We have to know what we really are as a way knowing where we need to change.  We need to know that our leaders were people long before they were textbook heroes. Abe wasn’t always honest and George didn’t always sleep at home.

Not every parent wants their teenagers exposed to the often ugly truth about our history. Today, maybe more than ever, schools are under enormous pressure to teach a uniform and scrubbed version of history. Especially one that will allow them to pass the mandated tests by which schools are graded. My career ended just as the extreme pressure of passing these tests took over. It became impossible for me to close my classroom door and continue teaching history as I believed it should be taught. It’s probably a good thing my career was wrapping up rather than just beginning. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have lasted under today’s rules.

So, whether these students knew about the Trail of Tears, or why they didn’t if they didn’t, or why they weren’t sensitive to what it means to every Native-American, or why someone didn’t catch it before the banner got on the school bus, we may never really know. What we do know is that what many people easily write off as being overly politically correct, isn’t. What we do know is that people who have been subjected to horribly violent events have valid reasons to be sensitive and experience genuine hurt. And, what we also know is that we all need to do a better job of making ourselves and our children more aware of the soft spots in our nation’s history. To do that we need to talk about both the good and the not so good.

What I also know is that if any story needs a hero this story has one. The hero is that student who saw what was happening and dare speak out against it. That person is now the target but that’s what heroes do. They fall on a grenade for the good of the whole.

FOOTNOTE: I’m not sure what direction the administration of the Greenfield schools will take in this matter but I want it be known that this incident should be used as a teachable moment for the entire community and NOT for the casting of blame. This is not a fireable offense, it’s an occasion to be used for betterment and increased awareness.

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Personally, I think real history is much more interesting than the watered down version taught in History classes, be it today or 34 years ago.