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Native Americans in the Midwest: An NEH Bridging Cultures at Community Colleges Project

March 27, 2014 | By NEH Staff

The Ohio Historical Society received an NEH grant in 2013 to support a series of conferences for community college faculty on Native American tribes in the Midwest.

Funded through the Bridging Cultures at Community Colleges (BCCC) program, the three-year project also includes mentoring and curriculum development for thirty-six faculty and administrators from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

To learn more about “Native Americans in the Midwest,” we talked with project director Molly Uline-Olmstead, a creative learning engineer with the Creative Learning Factory at the Ohio Historical Society.

1. Why did you choose Native Americans in the Midwest as the topic for your Bridging Cultures at Community Colleges project?

The Southern Trail of Tears dominates the current historical narrative of American Indian removal experiences. Here in Ohio, however, the tribes have their own removal stories and experiences that stretch over many years. For some tribes, like the Absentee Shawnee, these stories begin in the late 1700s; those of the Miami stretch into the mid-1800s. We have been working with representatives of Ohio’s federally recognized historic tribes since 2009 to build relationships and work through some of the deep hurt that the scar of removal has left behind.

The BCCC project gives us the opportunity to tell these stories and bring acknowledgement to those removal experiences. It is also a way to broaden the study of American Indian experiences in the community college classroom by both delving deeply into the historical content and highlighting a contemporary perspective. We often hear from our American Indian partners that they want people to know that they are still here, they didn’t vanish after removal, and more than that, they are maintaining and growing their culture and really thriving.

2. Have there been any particular challenges of designing and implementing a project on this topic?

There is a lot of misinformation about the American Indian experience, some of which is a result of ignorance and some a result of willful racism. So we are constantly grappling with issues like language and representation. We are also challenging the dominant historical narrative, and that can be contentious. Our project faculty, American Indian community members, and community college faculty have all been extremely dedicated to making the conversation rich and respectful, and as a result we have had some really great discussions.

3. What do you hope that community college faculty will gain from participating?

We hope the community college faculty will have a fuller understanding of the American Indian experience in the Midwest, and beyond that, we hope that they bring that understanding back to their classrooms and share the stories and experiences with their students. We also hope that they use the American Indian experience in the Midwest as a case study to continue to challenge those dominant historical narratives with their students. We want to bust some myths about American Indian history and contemporary American Indian life.

4. Who are the presenting scholars and what have they brought to the project?

We have a really strong collection of scholars. John Bowes (Eastern Kentucky University) gave us great historical context for early Ohio history. He also presented on Wyandot history and will present on the Trails of Tears this August. Randal Buchman (emeritus, Defiance College) offered an overview of pre-contact American Indian history leading up to Ohio statehood. Linda Sue Warner (Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College), our partner liaison, provided strategies for integrating American Indian history and issues into the classroom.  Stephen Warren (Augustana College) provided an overview of the Shawnee experience in year one and will continue that discussion in year two with a presentation about the Shawnee removal. Melissa Rinehart presented on Miami history and removal in Ohio. Dawn Marsh (Purdue University) has expertise on the Delaware and presented their history in year one and will present on removal in year two. Sharon Dean presented on the Peoria and Ottawa and then joined Dr. Warner and project evaluator Brent Garrett in a panel discussion on responsible research with American Indian people. George Ironstack (University of Miami) will present in year two about the contemporary Miami experience and language reclamation projects. Glenna Wallace, Chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, will discuss the Eastern Shawnee experience, tribal governance, and tribal community. Seneca-Cayuga language preservationist Paul Barton will talk about tribal historic preservation. Wyandot artist Richard Zane Smith will discuss the preservation of visual culture. We are so fortunate to have such wonderful and committed people involved with the program.

5. What has emerged from the project thus far – for example, new or revised courses, online resources, campus programming, or conference presentations?

We have developed a collection of resources. We have a project website that serves as a source for project information and a repository for content. In addition to logistical information about the project, the site holds recordings of conference presentations and discussions and recorded webinars. It also serves as a central location for resources including links to archives, bibliographies, and contact information for tribal members and presenters. It also has a collection of materials the participants located in the OHS archives on the final day of the conference. We also have a project Pinterest page. It’s a repository for articles, videos, websites, events, sites, and collections items from archives and museums collected by myself as the project director and forwarded by project participants.

Our community college faculty are in the process of revising existing courses or developing new ones for the 2014-2015 school year. The year three conference, August 17-18, 2015, will be an opportunity for participating faculty to present their research and the results of these new or revised courses. Participants will submit a proposal to present on the research they completed over the course of the project, their experience teaching a new course or including Native American perspectives in an existing course, and/or strategies they developed to use project sources or pedagogy. Project faculty will jury the submissions and select seven presenters. We hope that community college faculty will use these presentations at other conferences after the grant is completed.

6. Any memorable moments during the project activities?

On the second day of the 2014 conference we traveled to Chillicothe, Ohio, to visit the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park and to see the outdoor drama Tecumseh! We encouraged everyone to consider the performance from a critical historical perspective and note incidences of fact and myth so they could discuss the performance the following morning with Dr. Warren prior to his presentation on the history of the Shawnee. It was a perfect night for outdoor activities, which is rare in August in Ohio! The drama had amazing production values. The lighting, acting, horsemanship (that’s right, it included horses), and sound production were pretty fantastic. Unfortunately, many of us, myself included, did not know that the actors would be firing blank musket and cannon rounds. When the first volley of musket fire went off several of us screamed–it was deafening and alarming! There was definitely some good-natured teasing the next day about how some of us were a little hard of hearing after the final battle scene.