Swerupa Gosrani, OCR GCSE History B (Schools History Project) teacher
The ways in which Native American history is presented to UK school students continues to be given a lot of thought and attention within the history teaching community recently, notably by Schools History Project (SHP) fellow Alex Ford. It’s also been given attention by the media.
Over the summer we asked Swerupa Gosrani, an SHP teacher and Head of Department, who has been actively engaging in discussions on teaching Native American history, if she would be willing to share her reflections.
We delighted to present them below. Her blog includes a glossary of terminology, which has now been checked and verified by academics working on Native American history and studies. The glossary will also be issued to our examiners. It is important to note that our examiners will always mark positively and will accept any recognised terminology, so this is not an instruction to use the terms that Swerupa has identified as preferred. Rather it is an attempt to ensure wide awareness of this important debate, and to adhere to one of SHP’s principles: that of reflecting recent academic thinking.
One of the positive changes that the 2016 GCSE reforms brought were the changes to the old American West specification. The time period was expanded so that it covered US history from 1789 rather than 1840, which gives a better understanding of the development of the USA. The specification was also expanded to cover Black American history.
Together with the change in name from ‘American West’ to ‘The making of America’, these changes gave a much more rounded history of the USA during the 19th century. Whilst these changes were welcome, for the first 2-3 years of teaching this unit the challenges were to adapt and develop materials suitable for the new unit and to get to grips with the new type of exam questions.
When the pandemic hit and everything went online, this included CPD.There were lots of opportunities to improve and increase subject knowledge. One of the sessions I signed up for was an SHP session run by Alex Ford on The American West at GCSE: understanding conflict on the Plains.
Although I had taught this history for over a decade at both GCSE and A Level, I was interested to see if this session could tell me anything new. With contributions from Native American historians, it looked at the impact of colonialism on the telling of history of the American West and therefore the changing interpretations of this history.
One of the questions this session raised for me was of the use of the term ‘white settler’. Was this an appropriate term to use, given that ‘settler’ can suggest that that land isn’t already lived on?
The term ‘white American’ was suggested as a better term. Due to the changes to the GCSE exams for 2021, we had decided that we weren’t going to teach ‘Making of America’ that year. So I initially found this session most useful for the OCR A Level civil rights unit as it considered the changing interpretations of Native American history, which is a key part of that course.
Another aspect that went into developing the glossary for ‘The Making of America’ unit was taking part in the Nottingham Schools and Transatlantic Slavery project’, which was developed by the University of Nottingham. As part of this, Dr James Dawkins developed a Glossary of terminology for understanding Transatlantic slavery and race.
I found this resource transformational. It was a really simple document that helped not only my teaching of the subject but also valuable when shared with the rest of the school. As well as giving us all a better idea of the best terminology to use when talking about race, it also explained why some terms were more acceptable and some less so.
The final key session that led to the development of the glossary were the student-focused sessions run by Alex Ford and SHP on the Framing of US history. These sessions aimed to develop GCSE knowledge for A Level by looking at how Native American history was/is treated and the impact on today.
It was clear that different terms were used in these sessions for some of the events of the 19th century compared to those used in the specification and the textbook. The sessions used the changed terms because these were the ones preferred by scholars of Native American history. The updated terms did not imply that the conflict between Native Americans and White Americans was caused by Native Americans. In addition, some of the previous terms had their roots in colonialism.
For example, Red Cloud’s war was changed to Powder River war, which reflects where the conflict took place. The term Sioux isn’t one that they use themselves and also doesn’t reflect the many different divisions within this group of people. And some of the narratives of this history didn’t reflect the fact Native American history is still ongoing and didn’t finish at the end of the 19th century.
Although the updated terms were used in the videos and by academics, they had not yet consistently filtered down to the GCSE specifications and textbooks. With that in mind I felt that a simple glossary would be a start to changing the terms used and thus keep up with recent scholarship, while waiting for specifications and textbooks to be updated.
So with a bit of guidance from Alex Ford (in fact this would not have been possible without Alex Ford – thank you Alex!), I came up with the glossary.
This is an attempt to show the current terminology that is preferred by Native Americans when referring to events/people in 19th century America. I hope it helps our students, and hopefully other centres, to know the terms that are used by recent scholarship as well as those on the specifications.
Perhaps the first issue is over the use of the term Native Americans itself. Many exam specifications and textbooks use “Plains Indians” for example, rather than Native Americans. There isn’t a single correct answer to this. In the course of researching this blog, OCR was advised that:
Plains Indian, American Indian, or sometimes just Indian tend to be preferred by many in “Indian country” over what they see as academic terms like Native American (though there is something of a generational divide). All treaties refer to “Indians” so there is also a legal aspect to this terminology. Infinitely preferable, however – wherever possible – is nation-specific terminology (Lakota/Dakota or Oceti Sakowin in this instance).
The most important thing therefore is to be aware of the issues around this, and to discuss them with your students.
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Swerupa Gosrani is an Assistant Head of Humanities at Belper School in Derbyshire and has been teaching for 20 years. She teaches both history and politics, with a main interest in American history/politics. She has always taught the OCR SHP course in its various guises at GCSE and also teaches the OCR A Level course