Why Teaching Sovereignty Matters

On July 9, 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which held that under the Indian Major Crimes Act, lands reserved for the Creek Nation in eastern Oklahoma constituted Indian Country. This decision was a major win for Indigenous peoples in the U.S.

Legal scholarship is not my area of expertise, so I’m not going to speak to the legal ramifications of the case. Instead I want to address what is glaringly missing from U.S. history/social studies curriculum: discussions on Indigenous sovereignty.

There were several statements from the opinion I thought were important:

Congress has since broken more than a few promises to the Tribe. Nevertheless, the Creek Reservation persists today.

Courts have no proper role in the adjustment of reservation borders. 

In most social studies classrooms, students learn about a handful of key Indigenous peoples, the first Thanksgiving, and if there is enough time, the Trail of Tears. They certainly do not learn about broken treaties or reservation boarders, as the opinion acknowledges.  Students do not learn about the Allotment Act (Dawes Act), the Indian Removal Act, Wounded Knee, the boarding school era, or any of the local/regional/national struggles for Indigenous sovereignty.* Many teachers do not point out that the land America “settled” already had inhabitants on it, that the land did not exist for the exploitation of white settlers. Nor do teachers discuss the brutal, genocidal acts the settlers committed to hold firm to the land.

Because students do not learn about Indigenous history in this way, current events like Standing Rock or McGirt v. Oklahoma are not contextualized as *another* action in a long line of actions meant to diminish Indigenous rights, violate tribal treaties, and deny Indigenous peoples their position as sovereign nations within the U.S.

One prevailing theme in my research on Indigenous student experiences is how they must justify and defend their position at Indigenous while in school. Participants frequently tell stories of faculty and peers who deny their very existence (“You don’t really look Native,” “I don’t think that really happened, I would’ve learned about this in school”)–and whose denial rests of their lack of knowledge about Indigenous peoples in the U.S.

Social studies curriculum often positions Indigenous peoples as adjacent to the narrative of early colonial America. The curriculum paints Indigenous peoples as barriers to success, not as individuals who played a large role in the early success of the settlers.

Teaching about Indigenous sovereignty is one key strategy social studies instructors can employ to better prepare their students to understand the full history of the development of the U.S.

I want to acknowledge there are other important critical events in Indigenous history–these are the events that pop up the most in my research. 

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