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Reclaiming tribal histories, one page at a time

Oregon State professor is out to open students’ eyes to the lost histories of Indigenous peoples

“Students come to class with almost nothing and are super surprised to find this history,” says David Lewis, Oregon State University anthropology and Native studies adjunct professor. “Then, they start asking questions: How come we were never taught this in school?”

By Erin J. Bernard
May 28, 2019

If you aren’t asking hard questions of history, you probably aren’t learning very much.

That’s the truth about scholars, ethnographers and students according to Oregon State University anthropology and Native studies instructor David Lewis.

A Grand Ronde tribal member, Native American anthropologist and educator, David is committed to shining a light on our nation’s forgotten and suppressed tribal histories, and sharing what he learns with the next generation of thinkers brings that work full circle.

“Students come to class with almost nothing and are super surprised to find this history,” he says. “Then, they start asking questions: How come we were never taught this in school?”

Many non-Native students have little knowledge of Native American culture and history beyond a collection of stereotypes gleaned from movies, television and traditional American history education, David says, which rarely probes past the tales of Lewis and Clark and the Oregon Trail.

This can also be true for Native students, he adds, who comprise about one in 10 of his students in any given course. “The assumption is that Native people already know the history, and that’s not true,” he says. “They don’t know because it’s been covered up.”

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In the Peoples of the World-North America and Introduction to Native American Studies courses he teaches in person and online through top-ranked Oregon State Ecampus, David encourages his students to challenge countless historic assumptions and misconceptions about Pacific Northwest tribes.

Along the way, he adds, they are confronted with a painful pattern of genocide, removal, relocation, treaty-making and treaty-breaking. “There are these colonial structures in place that privilege the histories of the conquerors in a sense — the ‘Americans’ — and show the things they did were good, saving Native people from their savagery,” he says.

As they study this history, students examine portrayals of Native peoples in a multitude of mediums, from historical documents and presentations to films, TV shows and even computer games. Then, they trade impressions during lively weekly discussion groups, either in person or online.

“Students are very surprised when they take my course,” says David. “It’s somewhat outside the box and covers subjects not taught by anybody else.”

Beyond ‘quaint notes’

David’s teaching is informed by his work as an archivist and ethnohistorian reinterpreting scattered tribal history source materials — things like maps, stories, treaties and ethnographic notes.

As the previous director of the University of Oregon’s Southwest Oregon Research Program, David helped to gather 150,000 valuable pages of scattered ethnographic tribal documents into a single, locally accessible archive.

In his quest to recover Tribal history, Lewis also mines traditional anthropological source documents, looking past what he calls the “quaint notes” describing people “dancing in circles and wearing feathers,” to glean valuable insights about a tribe’s daily life — how its members lived, hunted and organized themselves.

“What we’re doing is reframing how Native people are thought about in our society to not just be objects of research or stereotype, but people with their own thoughts and minds and cultures and ideas. And that reframing of context in our society is important for everybody.”

Distilling and sharing such insights is a key goal of Native American anthropology, and this more humanistic and interactive approach offers his students a framework for challenging their own assumptions and misconceptions about Native history.

David Lewis connects with OSU Native American Longhouse Eena Haws student staff during the annual NAL Salmon Bake.

For OSU’s growing population of Native students, participating in this process of discovery affirms and augments their own understanding of their culture and history, David says, and empowers them to call out injustice and stereotyping in a more nuanced way.

“They know it intrinsically, through lived experience, but maybe they haven’t thought about various ways of addressing that or various ways of thinking about it,” David says. “I’m here to help them take the next step: What do you do now that you have this knowledge, this context?”

Some Native students will put that knowledge to work in the service of their tribes after graduation. Others, like David, will dedicate themselves to education and research, giving Native peoples a larger voice in academia.

But the skills David is teaching — asking and answering well-formulated scientific questions, pushing past assumptions and considering history through a critical lens — are an asset to any student entering any career or discipline, and also an asset to American culture at large.

The key is to keep on asking those difficult and essential questions, David says, of our histories and each other and especially ourselves.

“What we’re doing is reframing how Native people are thought about in our society to not just be objects of research or stereotype, but people with their own thoughts and minds and cultures and ideas,” he says. “And that reframing of context in our society is important for everybody.”

3 Comments

  • polly lewis says:

    Most informed and descriptive exploration of your manner of teaching and it’s subject matter. Excellent write up of your approach to teaching David.
    Mom

  • I would like to share a story telling Blanket with this teacher’s stories. The blanket is of my tribal genealogy and life events.

  • Daaxkoowdein Ch'aak' kudi hit taan says:

    “….iguayaxhx’wan; David Lewis, I encourage you. According to our oldest stories we are remind not just of the flood but of the eight generations of darkness that came before the flood. From the these devastating events, we survived, and our traditions and customs emerged. Everything about our traditions and customs encourages us to talk to one another, in this way, we put back the pieces of our shuka.”

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