By Elizabeth Lunday
Leah Guenther had a problem. After several years teaching English in a Chicago high school, she took a new position in 2019 teaching American history and civics to seventh and eighth graders. She began with a traditional curriculum that started the school year with European discovery of the Americas, but she was concerned that this approach didn’t give enough weight to Indigenous cultures. She decided she could manage this if she rewound to pre-contact America after discussing colonization.
That’s not how it worked out. She struggled to get her students to genuinely connect with Indigenous cultures. “I couldn’t rewind it enough,” she said. “I was getting off to the wrong start by not foregrounding the whole history in a way that allowed my students to understand Indigenous people and empathize with them, to get a fuller story of the history of the country.”
Then Guenther learned about a workshop sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and presented by the organization Project Archaeology. The workshop introduced teachers to the use of archaeology to teach about ancient peoples. During the summer of 2021, Guenther spent a week with teachers, museum educators and archaeologists exploring Project Archaeology curricula by investigating the Fremont culture, a society that lived in what is now Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and Colorado from the first to the thirteenth centuries.
Guenther began the next school year with a unit on the Fremont people. It changed the entire course, because her students became invested in Native cultures. “When we get to Columbus, the kids are naturally angry. They say, ‘wait a minute, how did he discover America when people had been living here for thousands of years?’” she said. That is exactly what Project Archaeology organizers want for their curriculum: deep engagement with people of the past through archaeology. For more than 30 years, the organization has provided educators with tools to explore the past while developing a basic understanding of the discipline and instilling respect for the nation’s cultural heritage.