Rethinking Native American History and Culture in the Classroom
After Aoife Thomas ’20 took the class “Education, Teaching, and Social Change” with Visiting Assistant Professor of Education Studies Meredith Madden, she noticed something about the narrative she had learned as a child.
“There are a lot of inequities in the way certain stories were told,” she said. “In American classrooms, history is often characterized by a dominant narrative. Native Americans usually aren’t represented fairly in this narrative, and a lot of times their history is glossed over or removed entirely.”
To tackle the problem of Native American portrayal in schools, Thomas started her Levitt grant research from the ground up. Her first step was to examine elementary school curriculums around the county.
Hometown: Belfast, Northern Ireland
High School: Santa Cruz High School, Calif.
She studied the curriculum material from three different grades and sent questionnaires to teachers asking about their approach to Native American history and culture in the classroom.
In addition to her research with Madden, Thomas worked hands-on with the Oneida Nation to make sure she presents her work in a way that is culturally respectful.
“For this project, it was really important that I included their perspectives to avoid perpetuating colonial power structures. It’s very common for other white scholars to do research and write papers about indigenous people without actually consulting the indigenous people for their perspective,” she said.
On campus, Thomas is involved with the Shenandoah Kirkland Initiative (SKI), where she hopes to raise awareness about Hamilton’s history with the local Native Americans and rebuild the connection between Hamilton and the Oneida Nation.
While her work with SKI introduced Thomas to the idea of studying Native American portrayals in the classroom, the project was inspired in part by her own experience. “As someone from Ireland, I feel a connection because the Irish people have historically been colonized too. There are similarities in the way they were treated and the way their language was taken away. There’s a very different context to each experience, but I still found it a fascinating connection.”
By the end of the summer, Thomas plans to present her findings to the Hamilton community. She invited teachers and principals from the local school district to view the presentation and hopes that they can use the information to expand and reform the way they teach Native American history.
After graduation, Thomas hopes to be an elementary school teacher. She plans to draw upon what she learned through her Levitt to make sure that all voices and perspectives are represented.
“That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned,” Thomas said. “It’s so important to examine everything we do to make sure we’re representing all perspectives, including non-dominant voices. It goes beyond my project and it really applies to everything we do.”