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Teach Like A Ranger IV – Addressing Controversial History at Nat’l Monuments

Located just south of Tampa, De Soto National Memorial was established in 1948 to commemorate the first extensive exploration of the American southeast by Europeans. Despite encompassing less than 27 acres, it hosts more than a quarter of a million visitors annually. Yet the rangers who work at this small park deal with some very outsized challenges.

De Soto is just one of a number of parks and monuments that are constantly trying to answer this question; how do we fulfil our educational mission and share a complete and accurate story whose significance is bound to cause controversy? This struggle resonates with many teachers who are equally challenged to ensure that content they are required to teach is relevant and meaningful to all students without becoming a source of exclusion or trauma. So, if you’ve ever had to teach a controversial topic and weren’t sure the best way to approach it, keep reading.

Rethinking Significance and Renewing Relevance

Part of what makes working at De Soto Nat’l Memorial especially challenging is the time and manner of its founding. Support for the establishment of the monument began building in the 1930’s in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of De Soto’s landing, and community leaders began to endorse its creation hoping it to use it as an economic engine rather than for purposes of historical education.

That said, history would play a central role in getting the memorial approved, but for some community leaders, the allure of establishing a monument was too important to sully with “inconvenient facts”. The Florida Historical Society endorsed creating a monument honoring the conquistador who according to them was, “the leader of a splendid force” who “in an age of cruelty…was distinguished for his moderation and his faith in God” and “so long as the doings of mankind are recorded, his name will be honored as typifying the best of the many fine qualities of the Spanish Cavalier.”

Not everyone was willing to engage in the whitewashing, but the prevailing view of Hernando De Soto was that of conquering, Christianizing hero. Long venerated by the Dixie generation as the south’s “first white hero” De Soto’s “discovery” of the Mississippi River was deemed significant enough to garner the support needed for the establishment of the memorial in the late 1940’s

Fast-forward to the 1990’s however and the significance of De Soto and his expedition had changed, and not for the better. Historians with updated information and Native American activists brought much attention to another perspective with huge ramifications for the park. In more recent historical assessment, his expedition was recast as a genocide and a failure, his exploratory achievements took a back seat to the much more significant descriptions of the Native cultures he encountered from his records, and this same research even called into question the significance of the memorials location since recent scholarship suggests that the land set aside for the memorial might not have been visited by De Soto at all.

The presence of these more inclusive narratives make creating educational programs for the memorial a delicate balancing act. Along with the story of the park’s namesake, rangers are also honor-bound to integrate themes of oppression, brutality, and racism. Thus, as our understanding of De Soto and other historical figures evolves, the mission of parks dedicated to those figures must evolve as well.

“Tell the Story, Don’t Celebrate It” – Addressing Controversy Like A Ranger

While there is much to debate regarding the nature of the De Soto expedition, there is no denying whose name is on the memorial, therefore the stories told always involve him. However, there is a right way to do so, and many of the strategies and guiding interpretive principles shared by the De Soto rangers are applicable in the classroom as well;

1) Just Share Facts

De Soto’s arrival in Florida irreversibly changed the landscape. Therefore, regardless of perspective, he is significant. While it may be easy to cast the men of the De Soto’s expedition as the “villains” of the story, the rangers do not start with that pronouncement. “It’s not our job to make up people’s minds, we just present the facts” Along with the facts, questions that provoke thought are used to help people make sense of the facts and determine how they see and feel about the different stories the memorial tells.

Teachers also want to help their students learn about the multiple perspectives present in history and they can do so by providing sources of information without bias. They then facilitate learning experiences that help students think critically about the facts and, eventually, help them to arrive at a conclusion that can be supported by what they have learned. A teacher doesn’t TELL the student what to think, but instead guides them in their thinking.

For example, a teacher might provide readings or short film clips depicting both the Patriot and Loyalist perspectives on the different causes that led to the American Revolution. As tempting as it may be to cast the Loyalists in the role of the villains, a teacher might challenge their students to think more deeply by asking, “why did so many Americans choose to pledge their support to the British during the war?” or “how did the British view of taxes and representation differ from the American perspective?”

2) Provide Context

De Soto didn’t just arrive in Florida looking to pillage and kill. His mission and decisions were influenced by numerous factors; personal, political, economic, and religious just to name a few. Understanding this context is key in understanding De Soto, and rangers do their best to share the context, so people understand that labeling De Soto as “bad” or “evil” is too simplistic. Information about Spain’s place in the world in the 1500’s, the relationship between Spanish nobility and their king, and the very different moral compass that people used to view the world all explain actions that, by today’s standard, have no explanation and will leave people confused. Context is key in understanding the why. “People come here ready to label De Soto and his men as evil, and while we understand why, it is more accurate to describe them as products of a different time.”

Providing context helps explain things that seem confusing or unexplainable, two reasons why students disengage in class or gravitate towards easier, less accurate explanations. If you didn’t understand the religious and political views of Puritans, you’d just assume that the Salem Witch Trials were the product of crazy and stupid people. Without understanding the cultural climate in 1950’s America and the geopolitical chess game that was the Cold War, there is no logical explanation for Joseph McCarthy’s rise to power. Providing students with contextual sources or information is key in helping them avoid less accurate explanations.

3) Interrupt Misinformation with Information

Telling a visitor that they are wrong is against the rules of interpretation as it may lead to people disengaging, becoming defensive, or leaving the park. But letting false narratives go unchecked is also unacceptable, so when rangers pick up on false or inaccurate information being shared, they counter it. “We don’t call people out, we just provide correct or additional information”

For example, a visitor once commented on how De Soto “slaughtered all the Indians in Florida” and while De Soto’s and his men did enslave and kill a great number of indigenous people, the biggest losses came from disease. Upon hearing this comment, the ranger offered additional information. He asked the guest if he knew that De Soto brought pigs with him on his expedition, the first pigs to arrive in Florida, and if he was aware that the pigs spread diseases like tuberculosis to native animals who in turn spread it to native populations who never had any contact with the Spainsh. Disease rather than violence was ultimately responsible for the deaths of nearly 90% of the natives populations encountered by De Soto. “We don’t seek to correct, we seek to enlighten.”

Teachers should look to address misconceptions not with reprimand, but with additional information, letting the student come to their own conclusions rather than providing commentary. If a student were to say, “all Americans were Patriots” the teacher could say, “actually your wrong” but a better way would be to interrupt the wrong info and offer additional information. Pointing out the nature of the war in the South, especially battles like Kings Mountain, as well as the civil war that occurred in South Carolina as Patriot and Loyalist neighbors fought against each other may make the student reconsider and revise their conclusions.

4) Mix Your Methods

Providing multiple ways for visitors to engage with park resources is key to fulfilling the park’s educational mission. Along with ranger-led programs are interpretive panels, museum displays, and other interpretive elements, each an invitation to learning.

One particularly unique educational element is the short loop trail which takes visitors along the mangrove-lined coast of the monument and through parts of the swamp. Along the trail are life-size cutouts of conquistadors as well as indigenous people. These cutouts sometimes appear out of nowhere, helping visitors to empathize with indigenous peoples who must have been shocked and intimidated to round a corner and come face to face with fully armored invaders tromping through their home. It also helps the visitor to empathize with the Spanish who got lost and tangled up in a dense and alien landscape full of strange people who seemed to vanish into the forest. The trail helps illustrate reasons why conflict broke out so quickly between the two sides in a way that doesn’t rely on text alone.

If you rounded a corner and came face to face with this, would you be inclined to shake hands?

Teachers looking to engage all learners should also vary their instructional approaches. While text and writing tasks are important for continuing to build student literacy, teachers should also find ways to engage other modalities. Audio, visual, interactive websites, expert interviews, and simulations are just a few of the options that are leveraged by the park service which can also be used by classroom teachers to great effect. Teachers might also consider creating a “mixed media experience” similar to a visitor center where information is available in all sorts of formats and students, like park guests, can choose which form they wish to engage with as they learn.

5) Include Missing or Marginalized Voices

When the memorial was first established the focus was almost entirely on the European perspective. One of the events that was held for a long period of time was the De Soto Pageant which commemorated the landing of the expedition. To say that the festival took historic liberties would be putting it lightly. One park superintendent describing the group that produced it as “feeling for history bordering on contempt” with their primary concern being for “a more spectacular show”. Its depiction of De Soto and of the native Floridians became so offensively inaccurate that Indigenous rights groups were able to bring suit in federal court ultimately resulting in a judge stopping the pageant for good.

While the memorial staff were not affiliated with the pageant itself, its end coincided with a renewed effort by the rangers to include the indigenous perspectives that were absent from the fanciful production. One of the tribes that De Soto encountered whose members are still present in the U.S. today are the Chickasaw. It was particularly important to this group that they were not cast as losers or victims since, from their perspective, they actually won. De Soto’s expedition was driven off their lands and those of other tribes with De Soto himself being defeated in combat and “buried at sea” in the Mississippi. This perspective is key in the many educational programs presented at the park. “Including the firsthand accounts of others, especially voices that were previously missing, is important.”

Teachers need to ensure that the material they present includes missing or ignored voices and perspectives, especially when they have students who are part of those same communities. This helps marginalized students feel more included and engaged, and also helps students who identify with more traditional points of view empathize with the experience of others. Above all, it is key to a more equitable educational experience.

An article written by Swalwell, Pellegrino, and View helps explain why inclusion techniques like the ones mentioned above are so essential to equity and inclusion in the classroom. Most instructional materials provided to teachers tend to promote “flat” history – narratives devoid of nuance, controversy, or more than one perspective. In most books there are two sides to the American Revolution; you were either Patriot or Loyalist. But the truth was much more complex, especially for the indigenous and Black communities caught up in the fighting.

In teaching the American Revolution, the allegiances and impacts of the war on indigenous tribes such as the Iroquois Confederacy provides an important perspective that gives insight into American policies towards native peoples later on. Including information about the British policy of freeing slaves who supported their war effort and subsequent American responses with greater integration in the Continental Army help the story of America’s independence become more inclusive and relatable.

6) Presentism May Lead to Inaccuracy

The danger inherent in always using the present as a moral compass for the past has been acknowledged over and over again. “Nothing is more unfair than to judge the sentiments of one age by the improved moral perception of another” was printed in an 1821 literary journal long before the term “presentism” was coined. Determining when it is appropriate to apply present morality to historic figures is a debate that rangers engage in daily, especially at De Soto Nat’l Memorial.

Rangers do this through programs that contextualize the world of De Soto and his men. “If De Soto were alive today, he would not have been doing what he did back then because it’s a different world, and so judging him by today’s standards isn’t really relevant.” That being said, rangers do share source information from expeditions members, such as priests, who did question the morality of the actions they were witnessing. This is to provide multiple perspectives but to also illustrate that enlightened objections were very much in the minority at the time.

Engaging students in discussions around this very authentic and relevant idea needs to be done carefully. Presentism might lead to inaccurate conclusions when applied to societies far, far removed from our own. However, it might be more appropriate to readily apply it to things like slavery in the American South, red lining of urban communities, or segregation where there is clear evidence that the immoral nature was widely understood at the time, especially by perpetrators who worked tirelessly to perpetuate and defend the practices. When to apply presentism and when not to is a very deep topic, and one that has many more nuances than is mentioned here.

What we choose to commemorate, especially with our national system of public lands and memorials is extremely significant. Mollie Beattie, former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, put it succinctly when she said, “What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.” The national narrative articulated through artifacts of public memory such as memorials, monuments, and historic sites is constantly shifting and, at times, is contentious. We must make sure that the message and stories we tell are real, but as the rangers at De Soto have said, they “don’t sugarcoat the controversy.”

Sources for Further Reading -

Small Park, Large Issues: De Soto Nat’l Memorial and the Commemoration of Difficult History

Swalwell, Pellegrino, and View (2015) Teacher’ curricular choices when teaching histories of oppressed people: Capturing the US Civil Right Movement. Journal of Social Studies Research.


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