When Middle School social studies teacher Irene Baigorri set out to teach Indigenous history to 7th graders at Calhoun, she wanted to make sure she told the story with respect and centering the voices of Indigenous people. After researching and reading many resources to inform her teaching, including Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, she realized that it was important to make her students understand that the story is not finished.
In her Indigenous Peoples unit, which coincides with Indigenous Peoples Heritage Month, Irene made the decision to teach the 7th graders the present and past of Indigenous Peoples simultaneously: “It was very important to me that my students understand that there is still a large Indigenous presence in the US,” says Irene. “While their history is very deep and rich, I did not want to teach them as people of the past.” While explaining that Indigenous Nations were stewards of many lands thousands of years before colonization, she also highlighted contemporary Indigenous Nations and how they celebrate their culture today.
While the students learned about Indigenous history, they watched videos of contemporary practices that exist today: “Bringing Indigenous voices into the classroom through video is essential in understanding Indigenous cultures’ past and present. It is important to hear them tell their own stories and traditions, as it gives additional context and puts a face behind these stories,” Irene says.
The unit began with the history of borders in Indigenous communities, and how they differed from what we know as borders today. The class also discussed Indigenous Nations and their different cultures, and how they are influenced by the relationship each Indigenous nation has with the land. Next, the students researched how each U.S. state received its name, and acknowledged the ones that had Indigenous influences. Their studies led them to a riveting debate about the utility, purpose and goal of land acknowledgements, and whether it’s possible to undo the erasure of Indigenous history and lands that’s occurred. The students were able to sharpen their research skills, while understanding more about the framing of American history and the perspectives of those who tell it.
As another way to represent the perspective of current Indigenous Nations, the students went on a trip to Ramapo Valley. There they were able to meet with elders of the Ramapough Lenape Deer Clan and take a hike on Indigenous land. Connecting with a present version of Lenape culture helped the students see Indigenous culture as part of today’s world, and not as something of the past. It also gave students insight into how these traditions have stood the test of time.
The seventh graders completed a corn fact drawing, since corn is a sacred plant and important food for most Indigenous Nations. While working on this project, they focused on the Lenape and Haudenosaunee Nations, located in present-day Manhattan and Upstate New York, respectively. They wrote a persuasive essay about the Lenape people and the myth of the sale of Manhattan. This assignment especially challenged seventh graders’ critical thinking skills and their ability to discern different worldviews.
The unit concluded with an independent research project, in which students made an informational brochure about a contemporary Indigenous topic, such as politics, sports, art, social movements, culture and food. It was a great way for the students to tie together all they’ve learned throughout the unit while celebrating important parts of Indigenous cultures. The students presented amazing work that you can check out below. These brochures show a strong grasp of Indigenous Peoples’ history and admiration of Indigenous Peoples’ present.