Most professional archaeologists have encountered a unique oddity with regard to the average American citizen and their perspective on the American Indian. My parents were born in 1910 and 1911. They never knew a single American Indian personally because hardly any American Indians lived in their Middle Tennessee town (Gallatin, Tennessee) in the 20th century. Their knowledge of American Indians came from reading childhood books and stories about the Wild West or from watching fictional re-enactments of it in cowboy and Indian movies or in the various western drama series on television in the 1950s and 1960s.
Their generation’s knowledge of the American Indian went back in time to only about 1492, and I suspect that is still true for many American citizens today. They apparently thought the American Indians immigrated to the United States (from a place called Central Casting) not too long before the white man arrived in the New World. Moreover, the primary purpose of the American Indian immigration from Central Casting was to be marginalized, oppressed, abused, and killed in the movies and on TV to entertain the overall American population.
Beginning in 1971 and continuing (off and on) until about 1977, I worked a job at The Parthenon (the Metropolitan art museum in Nashville). I did everything from working in the gift shop to caring for the famous Cowan Collection of American paintings to working in The Grotto Art Gallery, which was a massive display of American Indian artifacts from Tennessee, Mesoamerica, and the Peruvian lowlands. During my time there, particularly in the gift shop and The Grotto Gallery, I must have seen or talked to well over one million people from all over the world.
Most of our museum visitors were American citizens—some from Tennessee—but mostly from places like Wisconsin, Colorado, Oregon, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, etc. When I was working in The Grotto Gallery and talking to our many visitors, one thing became crystal clear to me over time. Most of our visitors had a time-depth perception of the American Indian that went back (at best) only a few centuries to Christopher Columbus in 1492—and in far, far, far too many cases—only about 100 to 175 years in the American West (courtesy of the movies and TV). Most of our visitors had no idea when or how the American Indians first arrived in the United States—except that it must have been on some key date just a few short years before the white man first arrived in North America. Of course, in their minds, this was the key date when the first American Indians made their initial long trek from Central Casting to first populate the United States.
I was absolutely appalled at how massive and widespread this ignorance was—and how incredibly deep it went. It was not lodged in just one age group. Kids were affected by it. Some of the kids arrived at The Parthenon from other summer vacation stops. They were dressed in plains Indian headdresses and outfitted with rubber tomahawks, mimicking the American Indians who were shot by the blue pony soldiers on TV nearly every night in the 1960s. Teenagers bore this weight of ignorance, middle age people exhibited it, and so did the old ladies from Wisconsin. Most of these people knew one thing for sure though—American Indians had always lived in a portable structure called the tipi—all of them:
Well, the ones we see on Gunsmoke do.
Observing all of this ignorance took me back in time to my own school days (Grades 1-12) here in Tennessee. (There was no kindergarten back then in Gallatin, Tennessee.) American Indians were touched on very briefly in our social studies and history classes, usually in the context of those:
…awful red savages who killed our nice, white, Christian settlers for no good reason.
It was all just a quick touch on the shoulder to count coup on the American Indians—and then quickly on to the really important people in American history—such as those dead white presidents and founding fathers on our money. After all, most of our school teachers were white people—and most people in mid-20th century Gallatin knew that real Americans had always been white as the driven snow. (LOL)
Nowadays, I am an old guy who walks with a cane, and it has been decades since I worked in any museum. Is such ignorance of American Indians still so widespread as it once was among the American people? I do not know for sure—but I do have my suspicions about it.
One thing I do know. The public school administrators and teachers are trying to do much better by the American Indians than they once did in our Tennessee public schools. However, I cannot say the same for all of the American companies that publish K-12 social studies textbooks, which are often based on prototype textbooks created for the public schools in Texas.
Just in case you did not know, Texas is the modern day laughingstock of American K-12 education and home to the infamous Texas State Board of Education (TSBOE). Unlike in most of our 50 states, the TSBOE is a publicly elected body, often dominated by Christian fundamentalist prejudices and right wing extremist ideological shenanigans that directly affect public school curricula and textbook contents. Historically, the TSBOE has shown a strong tendency toward short-changing minority groups in an attempt to make sure that a good K-12 education in Texas is an education of the white people, by the white people, and for the white people—so God help the white people.
One of the social studies textbooks my kids used here in the Oak Ridge public schools began with a long chapter devoted to the Americans Indians, including American Indian prehistory and archaeology. Rather than a quick touch and run, their teachers actually stopped for a reasonable amount of time and dwelled on teaching their students about American Indian prehistory, history, and cultures. That was the good news!!!
The bad news was the content of that chapter in their textbook, particularly the portions dealing with the prehistory of the eastern United States. It had a lot of incorrect information in it. I am not sure how it got that way, but my political activist wrangling with the TSBOE for the last 11 years has taught me one thing for certain. Writing a K-12 social studies textbook from scratch is like making sausage. Watching it being created, written, reviewed, revised, and published is a real mess most people would rather not see.
In the front of my kids’ social studies textbook, I noticed a long list of contributors and consultants with various academic backgrounds. The consultant for archaeology was a southwestern archaeologist who was a professor at a university in one of our Rocky Mountain states. That went a long way toward my understanding of all the textbook errors about archaeology here in the East. American archaeologists tend to be trained in the archaeology of a particular region of our country. Take them out of their region, and things get a little shaky in the knowledge realm.
I sat down with my kids’ textbook one night and did a formal, written review of the section on prehistory, nicely and politely pointing out all of the mistakes in it. I sent my review to the archaeologist who supposedly helped oversee and review the writing of that chapter. The archaeologist never responded to my review. I had hoped this archaeologist and the textbook publisher would correct the errors when they revised that chapter for the next edition, but I do not know if that ever happened.
Personally, I would like to see all of these long-standing clouds of ignorance about American Indians and the prehistory of the United States burned away. The near disappearance of cowboy and Indian movies from our theaters and TV western series from our most watched TV networks is helping with that. Our Tennessee public school administrators and school teachers appear to be trying harder to include American Indian prehistory and history in social studies textbooks—and dwell upon them for a good while in class—and do so respectfully and without bias or prejudice. However, I suspect this is a bit spotty all over the United States as a whole, and we probably have a long way left to go before all of our American K-12 students are able to attain an adequate measure of knowledge, love, and respect for the diverse cultures and very long time depth (at least 14,000 years) of the American Indian in the United States and everywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.