Why You Can’t Teach United States History without Indians ed. by Susan Sleeper-Smith, et al. (review)
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Why You Can’t Teach United States History without Indians. Edited by Susan Sleeper-Smith, Juliana Barr, Jean M. O’Brien, Nancy Shoemaker, and Scott Manning Stevens. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pp. 352. $29.95 paper)

In her revealing essay on California Indians and the gold rush, Jean O’Brien admits that you can teach American history (actually) without including Indians. But, she posits, you shouldn’t. Not “if you want to get to the bottom of the story of the United States as a settler-colonial nation, and, even more fundamentally, if you want to get the story right” (p. 115). The widely acknowledged problem that this book addresses is that American history courses and textbooks fail to incorporate Native peoples in meaningful ways. Derived from presentations given at a 2013 symposium sponsored by the Newberry Library, the editors conceived the project as a “toolbox” for educators engaged in teaching the undergraduate U.S. history survey. They challenge the underlying “celebratory nationalism” that forms the agenda of most existing textbooks and seek to replace it with a more inclusive history—one that incorporates the Native experience and allows students to “realize that U.S. citizenship, political equality, and individual rights are not natural virtues coveted by all but have a long history of contestation” (p. 4).

Conveniently divided into sections that mirror the Civil War dividing line of the standard U.S. history curriculum, the collection includes sixteen essays that correspond to topical components of U.S. history courses. An additional section provides a theoretical primer in settler colonialism, sovereignty, and concepts of global indigeneity and imperialism. O’Brien’s essay on the California Gold Rush, for example, contrasts descriptions of the event in seven widely adopted textbooks against the Native-centric depiction in Albert Hurtado’s Indian Survival on the California Frontier. Not surprisingly, she finds that the textbooks not only failed to incorporate elements of Hurtado’s scholarship (first published a quarter century ago) but that every one of them erased Indians from the story. O’Brien acknowledges that [End Page 237] while textbooks, by the very nature of their function, cannot “include this sort of depth or richness,” they could do much more to reduce gross distortions. In this instance, the texts unvaryingly depicted John Sutter and James Marshall as “lone wolves casting their fortunes in a distant and vacant land,” an erroneous portrayal created only by eliminating Indians (p. 106).

The majority of essays attempt to remediate these problems by explicating the ways in which Indians are omitted from the standard narrative. Paul T. Conrad’s essay on the essential role of the Indian slave trade as a precursor to African slavery in North America and the Caribbean is one such example. Juliana Barr and Adam Jornter, in a pair of somewhat duplicative essays, explore the ways in which maps in textbooks eliminate Indian settlements, places, and tribal boundaries, leaving the impression that the land was vacant and open to European colonization. Barr finds the omission of Indian territoriality particularly problematic, for, as she notes, “If Indians had no borders then they had no claim to the land, and Europeans were not transgressing Native nations’ domains” (p. 16). Mindy J. Morgan documents the creation of the parallel Indian New Deal during the Great Depression, leading to the largely unintended consequence of tribal members migrating to urban environments. All of these additions are intended to create a more inclusive version of American history.

A few of the essays go further. Jeffrey Ostler’s piece on Indian warfare in the West, while offering nothing particularly new to those familiar with the contours of his subject, provides several valuable pedagogical suggestions for teaching the material in engaging and provocative ways. Mikal Brotnov Eckstrom and Margaret Jacobs expand the pedagogical theme by laying out an entire strategy for teaching American history using the framework of settler colonialism. They provide a Nez Perce case study to illustrate primary source reading strategies and writing assignments to connect settler-colonial history to ongoing events.

As one might expect in a volume of this sort, some essays are more [End Page 238] inclusive or...