Free Land Curriculum Guide

Free Land Curriculum Guide“How do we talk about white people’s genocide of Native Americans? How has it shaped the world in which we live? For those of us who are not Native, what is our relationship to the land we live on and to the Native American community?” (Ariel Luckey, Free Land Curriculum Guide, 2010, p. vii)

Several years ago, I met Ariel Luckey at a Teachers For Social Justice conference in San Francisco. Ariel is a social justice poet/playwrite/educator/activist who uses performance and hip hop to engage audiences in burrowing through our collective amnesia about the historical construction of white supremacy, the roles of our own families historically, and impacts of white supremacy on us today. Free Land was his first set of performances interrogating his own family history in relationship to the Homestead Act and its role in transferring Indigenous lands into White hands. (I just saw him perform his more recent Amnesia, which was terrific — go if you can!) When I realized he had produced the Free Land Curriculum Guide for use in classrooms, I eagerly ordered a copy.

For any teacher who is interested in Critical Family History in the classroom, this curriculum guide is well worth getting. As Ariel explains, his “family history was a doorway into learning about and grapping with larger questions and social issues. . . .By following the footsteps of our ancestors back through time, we can track a pathway to deeper insight into history and stronger connection to our own lives” (p. 20). Free Land scaffolds that doorway, drawing from Ariel’s experience of realizing that a ranch his grandparents owned in Wyoming had been acquired through the Homestead Act that was a major part of US government policy of dispossessing Indigenous peoples and transferring land to Whites. He dug back into the history of whose land that had been, and exactly how it was violently taken to benefit families like his. With this realization and subsequent radical change in perspective, he then investigated the history of the land in Oakland, California, where he lives now.

Free Land Curriculum Guide provides tools, readings, background information, and activities enabling teachers to scaffold a similar learning process for their students. Ariel writes: “The point is not simply to replace the ‘wrong’ historical narrative with the ‘right‘ one, but to equip students to critically engage with each narrative in all of its complexities.” (p. 3). The guide offers eight lessons to use in conjunction with the Free Land DVD as text (a transcript of the DVD is at the end of the curriculum guide). Each lesson runs 1-3 hours. The guide is informative and user-friendly, offering background information, specific teaching activities, handouts, and suggestions to the teacher. It encourages teachers to adapt lessons for the time available, their students (such as age, Native vs. non-Native), and where the school is located in relationship to whose land it had been originally.

All of the lessons are designed to engage young people in analyzing, writing, and debating from multiple perspectives that include perspectives of Indigenous peoples. The first lesson considers history as a story told from someone’s perspective, engaging student in comparing White and Indigenous tellings of historical events. In Lesson Two, students situate their family stories on a timeline that includes broader social historical events, very much like in my Context Questions Framework that involves placing events from one’s own family history, decade by decade, into a chart along with social, historical and cultural events or patterns during each decade, where one’s family was located.

Lessons Thee and Four address the sequence of events through which the U.S. government subjugated Indigenous peoples, removing them from their land and transferring it to White ownership, with focus on the Homestead Act. There is enough background information in these chapters that teachers with little knowledge of this history will be able to learn as they go. The fifth lesson guides students in digging down into the history of the land where they live, with specific examples from Oakland. The last three lessons address current issues. Lessons Six and Seven ask students to consider the disparate impacts of White appropriation of Indigenous land and sacred spaces for things like recreation and energy. Lesson Eight focuses on the many ways non-Indians reduce Indigenous peoples to mascots, a current form of exploitation. Throughout the lessons, students are encouraged to research, think, write position statements, make proposals, and debate, taking Native American perspectives seriously.

While numerous family history books for kids are available, this is the only one I am aware of that explicitly situates family history within a larger context, in this case, a context of conquest and exploitation. Adults sometimes ask whether these kinds of issues are appropriate for kids, but in my experience, kids have a keen sense of un/fairness. Free Land Curriculum Guide gives age-appropriate ways of applying that sense to a fundamentally important set of unjust historical events and relationships that continue unless interrupted.

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