Student-led History Corps partners with tribal officials to make Native history more accessible to public
Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Native American history is complex and requires multiple perspectives—especially the Native perspective—to tell accurately. Until recently, however, Iowa Native history was not a big part of social studies curricula in Iowa’s public schools. That is changing, however, and the University of Iowa is helping drive the change.

Mary Young Bear, now the conservator at the Meskwaki Cultural Center and Museum in Tama, Iowa, says she knew even as a high school student that something was missing.

“There was nothing in our textbooks to motivate somebody like me, as a Native person, to want more, to have a passion for it,” says Young Bear. “I didn’t get that until I started college and started learning. I thought, if I felt like that, there have to be a lot of people who feel the same way.”

Jacki Thompson Rand portrait
Jacki Thompson Rand

Jacki Thompson Rand, professor of history at the UI, focuses on American Indian studies and is the faculty advisor of History Corps, a graduate student–led online digital and oral history project based in the Department of History. Rand’s graduate students urged her to help them with a digital project that later became known as Iowa Native Spaces.

This long-term commitment, which Rand describes as an “enduring project,” involves students working closely with partners such as Young Bear in both the Meskwaki and Ioway tribes to record Native perspectives and oral histories while also finding ways to bring those narratives to the broader public. That is being done in a variety of ways, including with a digital mapping project that better represents Native perspectives of the history North America.

“The project has the goal of revising maps,” says Rand. “The revision is first about reversing the erasure because erasure is the accepted final chapter of the narrative. People think, ‘They’re gone now.’ It’s almost as if they were never there.”

Lance Foster, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, also known as the Ioway, has seen the erasure first hand.

“Nobody thought we still existed,” says Foster. “You hear about tribes like the Navajo and Sioux, but what do people know about us? I want people to know what the truth is. There’s a lot of misperception. It’s frustrating when people don’t know.”

That’s what energized Rand and her group of graduate students—which has included at various points Mary Wise, David De La Torre, and Laurel Sanders, as well as recent PhD graduate Eric Zimmer, among others—to not only take on this project but to ask tribal partners to play an active role.

“The people we work with are in high demand as resources within their community,” says Rand. “So this is something they do out of commitment and with a great deal of generosity of spirit.”

Among those offering time and expertise is Leah Slick-Driscoll, a social studies teacher at the Meskwaki Settlement School in Tama and a UI alumna. When the project grew and grant funding increased, Slick-Driscoll expressed to Rand, one of her former professors, her desire to make Native history more accessible to teachers across the state.

“Iowa has never had a requirement to teach it,” Slick-Driscoll says. “Even social studies teachers who are teaching American history don’t get a great background in Native history. If they do, it’s based on the European-American perspective on how the land was acquired and how it affected Native and non-native peoples.”

“The students’ passion, their dedication, their absolute desire to get it right—they’re so dedicated to this project. It’s really impressive and I’m just grateful that they’re there and willing to do this. Just the fact that it was even acknowledged, because this has been a problem for so long, and somebody said this is a problem we need to address—this might be part of the solution.”
—Mary Young Bear, conservator at the Meskwaki Cultural Center and Museum

This led to another important partnership in the project. While working with the UI Libraries’ Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio to create a website where the revised maps and oral histories would live permanently, Rand and her graduate students were connected with Jason Harshman, an assistant professor in the UI College of Education.

The History Corps project dovetailed perfectly with another initiative Harshman was a part of—working to bring marginalized perspectives of Iowa history to Iowa social studies curricula while also helping teachers learn how to share those perspectives with students.

“We had our Iowa History Connections workshop, and then the opportunity came up to work with Jacki and the history department,” says Harshman. “I met with Jacki and Mary Wise, heard what they wanted to accomplish and what we could build upon.”

Harshman also worked with Slick-Driscoll to provide expertise on the importance of revising Iowa’s social studies standards to include Native Iowa history.

“A big part of why Native perspectives in particular came into the standards-revision process was having people at the table to answer questions,” says Harshman. “To have Leah on the team, to draw upon conversations that were had through Iowa Native Spaces and trying to answer what was missing, or what in Iowa history we had not given its due attention, was important.”

Since May, and for the first time ever, the state of Iowa now has a K–12 standard for social studies students that includes teaching Iowa Native history.

“We added five different areas where Native history must be taught to every student,” says Slick-Driscoll. “First, fifth, and seventh grades and high school will learn about Meskwakis and our experience. It’s an incredible way to include this history for all Iowans. It will broaden perspectives and enrich their critical-thinking skills. When we stop telling a one-way perspective, history becomes new and interesting. It’s an opportunity to enrich the education of all Iowans.”

To help teachers address a topic they may not have as much experience with, two workshops were held at the Meskwaki Settlement, with more than 30 teachers in attendance at each. The workshops included presentations from many of the tribal partners who participated in Iowa Native Spaces, including Slick-Driscoll, Foster, Rand, and Young Bear. Additionally, Harshman spoke with teachers about how to integrate what they learned in the workshops into their lesson plans in accordance with the new standards.

Bringing the teachers into the mix also helped solidify ideas about what information the Iowa Native Spaces website should provide.

“We started to think that this should be a permanent part of the digital project, developing these materials for teachers,” says Rand. “If these teachers say they don’t have resources, the Iowa Native Spaces website could be a place to provide them. It’s designed to speak to them in a way that meets their standards.”

Wise, one of the first graduate students to work on the project, has had a large role in designing the website and hopes it can be useful for teachers, students, and anyone else with an interest in learning.

“I know it’s cliché to say I hope everyone uses it, but I do,” says Wise. “The general public can become aware of the challenges that American Indian nations face through it. There’s a lot in there that gives power to push back against the narratives that erase the Meskwaki and Ioway and can contextualize those forces that seemingly produced Iowa without American Indians in it.”

Rand says she is very proud of her students, who drove the Iowa Native Spaces project from the beginning.

“My students are fluid, they’re flexible, and they know how to conduct themselves with a lot of different people,” Rand says. “There is a caring there. To have them deal with this project and our partners in such a profoundly correct way, I can’t even think of them as students. I think of us all as partners.”

The students are passionate about the project and the learning experiences it has brought forth.

“A career-long lesson here is the value of collaboration,” says Wise. “Committing to collaboration from the beginning enhanced the whole project. We don’t want to be the final authority, because we’re not.”

The project has been fulfilling for the tribal partners as well.

“It was a privilege,” Young Bear says of working on Iowa Native Spaces. “The students’ passion, their dedication, their absolute desire to get it right—they’re so dedicated to this project. It’s really impressive and I’m just grateful that they’re there and willing to do this. Just the fact that it was even acknowledged, because this has been a problem for so long, and somebody said this is a problem we need to address—this might be part of the solution.”

Being afforded the opportunity to speak with both the Iowa teachers and the graduate students was especially important for people like Foster, particularly in his role as a tribal historic preservation officer, where much of his job is educating others.

“It was gratifying to speak with the teachers,” says Foster. “It was fun to work with the students and see them open their minds. It’s going to be an interesting journey to see what they can continue to come up with.”

Having experienced how learning about Native history changed her own life, Slick-Driscoll says she is proud to have played a role in doing the same for more Native students and the broader public in Iowa.

“I was originally a pre-med student at Iowa,” Slick-Driscoll says. “When I took my first Native studies course, I knew I would change my major and I knew I would do something completely different with my life. I knew one of the most important things our tribe needed, we had 100 percent of students that were Native, and in the past they weren’t getting Native history even in their own school. This changed the destiny of our students here.

“If you’re not including Native history in American history, it’s not really American history. It’s incredible for the university to support something like this.”

There is still work to be done, which Rand is committed to continuing. It has been a deeply personal experience for her on a number of levels.

“All Native scholars say when they go into the academy that ‘I want to do something for my people,’” says Rand, who is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “And then there’s nothing you can do because you’re in the academy, where you might be constrained by requirements and deadlines. So it’s rare that you actually get to do something for your people.

“It gives me enormous pleasure to do something for these communities for their agenda, and that they find it useful.”