Missing Links in Textbook History: Indigenous Peoples


Jim Mamer | ScheerPost - TRANSCEND Media Service

North American Progress (John Gast painting).
John Gast, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Oh, the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh, the country was young
With God on its side

Bob Dylan, “With God on Our Side” (1963)

1 Feb 2023 – By the time I started high school I had come to see the world in Manichaean terms, full of good guys and bad guys. We, North Americans, were the good guys, often presented as settlers defending our families against hostile Indians. It was dangerously easy to accept the notion that history is pretty simple.

So simple, in fact, that a few lines from vintage Dylan offer a pretty good summary of what is said in secondary textbooks about indigenous peoples.

I have written before that US history, as taught in pre-collegiate courses, is often taught as a series of unconnected segments. That approach is clearly reflected in how the Native tribes are presented in state-approved textbooks.

Some begin with an early chapter on Indigenous communities before the European invasion with titles like “Native Societies of the 1400s.” And some jump right in with a section on colonial Europeans like “The Colonial Roots of America’s Founding Ideals.”  But then, in every text I’ve examined, the Indigenous people disappear. That is except when they are mentioned in scattered reports of confrontations with white people. And even these reports are detached from any extended discussion of context.

The distortions begin early. In 4th or 5th grade we were taught about the Pilgrims’ voyage to the “New World” as a kind of origin story of friendly relations between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims in the 17th century. Many of us even took part in plays reenacting a fictitious “first Thanksgiving” devoid of conflict. I still remember playing a thankful Pilgrim despite wanting to play the doomed turkey.

The truth is uncomfortable. No matter what some suggest, North America was never a sparsely populated wilderness. In fact, in the area now known as the United States, the pre-Columbian population is estimated at between four million and seven million people, organized into about 600 tribes speaking different languages with diverse dialects.

What really happened in North America is, what historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz calls, “classic cases of imperialism and a particular form of colonialism — settler colonialism,” defined as a system that aims to displace an Indigenous population with a new one.

In short, beginning with the 13 colonies, United States history would be better presented as a history of settler colonialism based on a core belief in European supremacy, slavery and genocide.

Admittedly, it would be difficult to write a history of the United States that encompasses the variety of Indigenous nations and both Spanish and English colonies, but the common alternative, explaining United States history by putting the Native North Americans off to the side, is fundamentally dishonest.

Minimal, disjointed and misleading coverage of Indian nations does, however, serve the purpose of diminishing their importance. And when combined with the erroneous idea that, from the beginning, the U.S. tended toward isolationism, students often get the impression that the new country was not aggressive and simply wanted to be left alone.

The fact that warnings, by both Washington and Jefferson, against making alliances, only concerned relationships with European nations (and with avoidance of European wars) is rarely mentioned. So, what we end up with is incongruity. Although most North Americans are aware that, for more than 100 years the United States was in continuous conflict with the Native tribes, few are capable of naming a single Indian-United States war.

Over many years I have asked classrooms of students, in both high schools and in universities, to list all the wars that the United States has engaged in since the founding. The responses have been consistently disappointing and enlightening.

Some of the best responses were lists of every war found in textbooks or discussed by the news media. Some even included dates, but only a couple mentioned any war against the Native peoples and those who tried merely identified something vague such as “wars against Indians.”

If you think I might be overstating this, ask yourself: How many declared wars between the U.S. and an Indian nation did you learn about in school?

According to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, treaties are agreements between sovereign nations. They, “lie at the heart of the relationship between Indian nations and the United States.” The United States made treaties with tribes because they were independent nations and some of these treaties still define many mutual obligations. The National Archives and Records Administration estimates that there are 374 treaties ratified between the two parties. That is, between the two nations: the United States and an Indian nation.

Of course, it is impossible to teach everything in any one history course, but the past is now a battlefield and, in that battle, what is left out is consciously excluded in order to promote comfortable conclusions that preclude a study of settler colonialism.

The fact that, in United States history, there were three declared wars against the Seminoles in Florida provides a good example of what is so carefully left out of the texts.

The First Seminole War (1817–18) began over attempts by the United States to capture escaped slaves living among the Seminoles in a territory, now the state of Florida, but then claimed by Spain. Soon after that war, in an agreement with Spain, Florida became a territory of the United States.

Many Seminoles then relocated to a reservation established north of Lake Okeechobee.

Then a treaty was signed with a group of Seminole chiefs in 1832 which required them to give up these reservation lands within three years and move west. When white settlers wanted that land, the U.S. Army arrived in 1835 to enforce the treaty.

Many refused to relocate to an area west of the Mississippi river (See Indian Removal Act). This led to the Second Seminole War lasting from 1835 to 1842 and costing the U.S. between $40,000,000 and $60,000,000, about $2 billion in 2022 currency.

The Third Seminole War (1855–58) was the result of continued efforts to remove the Seminoles remaining in Florida.

The content of secondary textbooks varies from state to state, but in my experience, based on the depiction of the Indigenous peoples, there is little difference. And there is little difference over time.

To illustrate this, I will use material from two popular high school American History textbooks published 20 years apart. The first, the last text that I used in teaching, is “The Americans” published by McDougal Littell in 1999. The newer text is History Alive! Pursuing American Ideals published by Teachers’ Curriculum Institute in 2019.

In the dozens of textbooks that I have examined, there is always mention of manifest destiny. In “The Americans,” that discussion begins, “…in the 1840s, expansion fever gripped the country. North Americans began to believe that their movement westward was predestined by God.” That is followed by an 1845 quote describing the annexation of Texas as “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

In “History Alive,” manifest destiny is central to the description of the time period. “The combination of nationalism and expansionism gave rise in the 1840s to a belief known as manifest destiny. The term means ‘obvious fate,’ and it seemed obvious to many citizens that the United States was intended to spread its founding ideals and democratic way of life across the continent and beyond.”

In “History Alive,” this quote is accompanied by a reproduction of a John Gast painting titled “American Progress.” It shows a few Indians and buffalo running from the approach of a wagon train, some settlers, the railroad, a stagecoach, and a large blond woman, leading the way by floating through the sky dragging a telegraph wire. It is a painting found in too many textbooks.

In any legitimate history, one might expect an explicit critique of such fantasy, but in these high school texts, there is none. The slogan “manifest destiny” is left intact in both books as if it were something other than a justification for what would be better labeled ethnic cleansing.

In “The Americans,” in a section with the understated title, “Native American Cultures in Crisis,” it is reported that the “Indian Wars” were over after the “battle” of Wounded Knee in 1890. Significantly, these “Indian Wars” never, in the textbooks, were referred to as wars.

In a well-regarded academic history, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, this “battle” is properly referred to as the “massacre of Wounded Knee” and the analysis is both comprehensive and understandable. For example, this sentence is part of an introduction to the event, “The Seventh Cavalry attack on a group of unarmed and starving Lakota refugees attempting to reach Pine Ridge to accept reservation incarceration in the frozen days of December 1890 symbolizes the end of Indigenous armed resistance in the United States.”

I have never encountered a high school student unable to understand that sentence.


What follows are sources for anyone hoping to understand the historical relationship of the United States government to the Indigenous population.


The Penguin Library of American Indian History (7 Books)

I especially liked, The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears by Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green (2007)

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne (2010)

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. (2014)

An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 by Benjamin Madley (2017)

This Land is Their Land (The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving) by David J. Silverman (2020)


We Shall Remain: America Through Native Eyes (Chris Eyre)

Provides background on Massasoit and the first Thanksgiving.

As well as information on Tecumseh, and his brother Tenskwatawa, and the War of 1812.

The Way West: How the West Was Lost & Won 1845-1893 (Ric Burns).

How the Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Ponca, Apache, Nez Perce, and Ute fought back when citizens of the United States overwhelmed their homes and forever destroyed the unprecedented freedom that lay at the center of Indian life on the plains.


Native American and Indigenous Peoples FAQs

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Native Knowledge 360° Essential Understandings about American Indians




Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher.  He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984. He served as History/Social Science department chair for 20 years and was a mentor teacher in both Modern American History and Student Assessment. In 1992 he was named a Social Science/History Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).

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