In our classroom we have a Social Studies unit focused on Virginia's (and Maryland's) Indigenous people. This unit developed after we noticed that our students had no idea about the people, cultures, and communities that have been on this land for thousands of years.
One part of this unit that we are just getting into is an investigation about the one and only Pocahontas. She is from a tribe in the Virginia area, called the Pamunkey (part of the Powhatan Confederacy) and thus is very relevant. She also was a source of great interest to our students-- so we went with it!
Investigations are a great way to get students (or anyone!) invested in a conversation, and gives the space for everyone to get some more background information before taking on a heavier or more dynamic conversation.
Our Pocahontas Investigation was structured by having small groups (3-4 students) doing what is typically called a jigsaw format. Each group received multiple resources.
The resources were things like:
- letter from the Powhatan nation about Pocahontas
- lyrics from a song in the Disney movie (we used the first verse and chorus of the song Savages)
- images of her from different sources
- news articles
- a Brainpop video
Each group received a worksheet to track what they were thinking/finding from their resources. Students had multiple time warnings, including a heads up of when to begin to organize what they want to share with the larger group. Finally, each group shared their conclusions.
Here are some of our students’ reflections from this investigation:
You need to look at multiple resources that take on multiple perspectives in order to fully understand a story
The Pocahontas story we learned from Disney is not historically accurate. (See the image above: our students were astounded that Pocahontas was talking to a willow tree when willow trees were not yet in North America!)
The stereotype of Native Americans/ American Indians/ Indigenous people being 'savages' and 'uncivilized' is in so much of our media. We know from our study of some awful American history along with our modern day work that this is a troubling stereotype we need to continue to counter.
Images and language around Pocahontas and other Indigenous American people continue to be demeaning*, showing them as not counting as 'human' which we think might connect to the way they were treated.. thinking about extermination, boarding schools, reservations and even land allocation and broken treaties today.
Harmful stereotypes about anyone hurt all of us. As one student put it, "almost of the things through history that are bad all have to do with stereotypes like women being weak."
*Our class has had multiple dynamic (and far from unanimous!) conversations about mascots as one present day way students shared that they see 'Native American people'. It was awesome to see and hear them come back around to that!
Let us know if you do anything similar or give this type of format a try! Also, please feel free to ask clarifying questions below. We aren't always sure exactly how many details to share and would be happy to explain more if need be!
Stay tuned for more updates from our classroom!