During their four years at West, students are required to take at least three years of social studies classes, including one year of American history. Clark, who has moved multiple times in his life, believes none of his schools covered Indigenous peoples’ history in-depth and feels his community is overlooked in the curriculum.
“[Indigenous history is] not really talked about at all, besides U.S. history and the Seven Years War and stuff like that,” Clark said.
In the ICCSD, fifth grade is the designated year students learn about early U.S. history at the elementary school level. Alexandra Patrick-Ferree ’27 is a sixth grader at Alexander Elementary. In her experience so far, there has also been little information on the history or cultures of Indigenous people.
“Indigenous people is a pretty big subject, and considering how big it is, I know pretty much almost nothing about it,” Patrick-Ferree said. “We did not generally learn about tribes because we were busy learning about the states.”
According to Brady Shutt, the ICCSD social studies curriculum coordinator, this is because the social studies curriculum at the elementary school level follows a unique structure.
“In the beginning, it’s this sort of family, neighborhood, community [structure] if you think about it as a circle that spreads wider and wider as students learn,” Shutt said. “But it’s not a lot of civics lessons and things like that, so it isn’t like they’re studying history the way you might think about it as a high school student.”
While past students may have celebrated Columbus Day, this year, Patrick-Ferree and her classmates researched Indigenous history in celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. However, these changes haven’t spread to high schools, where neither Clark nor Wolf talked about the holiday in any of their classes.
“A lot of people, especially Americans, are very … hesitant and reluctant to change,” Clark said. “I don’t really expect much progress.”
According to Wolf, even when Indigenous history is taught, it can easily be one-sided.
“I kind of feel like in history … [Indigenous people were] treated as a conflict and just as an obstacle that [European explorers] had to go through,” Wolf said. “In the Native American tribe[s’] perspective, it makes more sense because then it’s just people trespassing. They don’t exactly know if they’re a threat or not. Through their perspective it’s really just, ‘Do we let these random people go through our land?’”
Sara Schupanitz, a fifth-grade teacher at Borlaug Elementary, also recognizes that it’s important to be mindful of the perspective from which history is being taught.
“I don’t think we give enough spotlight to the non-white perspective of history. I think the white history is told and that we really need to take a critical look at the other … cultures that are involved in that,” Schupanitz said. “I think we need to take another look at that lens, ‘What are we teaching?’ and ‘What impact is that having on their mindsets moving forward?’”
Tyson Smith, the head of the social studies department at West, agrees there are still improvements to be made regarding Indigenous representation in the curriculum.
“[I do think Indigenous culture is represented in the ICCSD curriculum] but probably not as much as it should be,” Smith said. “As a society and personally as a teacher, we’ve learned a lot about the importance of having cultures represented in the curriculum.”
Schupanitz and her fellow fifth-grade teachers throughout the district are responsible for being many students’ first introduction to these aspects of American history. In her experience, teachers have found many ways to introduce their students to other perspectives relevant to the topic of colonization. She does this by beginning the unit with the book “Encounter,” a story of Columbus’s interactions with Native Americans that is narrated by an Indigenous person.
“A lot of times, kids [do] not understand how bad Columbus was … so that kind of blows their minds when we talk about it,” Schupanitz said. “[One of my colleagues] puts Christopher Columbus on trial … [and the students] have to call in character witnesses and things, so they have to think about the different perspectives of colonization.”
Representation isn’t only a focus for those teaching history. Wolf’s eighth-grade English teacher introduced him to a book called “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, a story told from the perspective of an Indigenous teenage boy living on a reservation in Washington state.
“It was nice to hear a first person narrative of the misadventures of someone who I would’ve been in the shoes of if I didn’t move to Iowa … It provides a perspective of what a life of an Indian high schooler is like,” Wolf said.
Tom Lindsey, an English teacher at West, uses the novel “There There” by Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapho author, to help his students examine the American dream through the perspectives of marginalized groups. The book follows a cast of Indigenous characters living in Oakland, California and showcases what it’s like to be an Indigenous person residing in urban areas of the U.S.
“A major part of this unit stems from Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ and focuses on how literature and forms of expression are used to shed light on the invisible aspects of mainstream culture. ‘There There’ provides students with a springboard to unpack Native culture and what role Indigenous people play in shaping our contemporary culture through the amplification of Tommy Orange’s powerful literary voice,” Lindsey said.