Teaching Native American History Through Music

As part of a schoolwide global citizenship curriculum at Wildwood School (CA), my eighth grade humanities class added a focus on worldwide efforts to revitalize languages. Students read case studies from World Savvy, both global and local, to understand that almost half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear in the next 80 years.
In January 2019, student Luke S. came across a Native American hip-hop artist named Tall Paul. His music video, “Prayers in a Song,” had caught Luke’s attention, and he wanted to use it for a homework assignment. With an old-school beat akin to Compton-born Dr. Dre’s direct storytelling style, Tall Paul raps about his current efforts as a member of the Ojibwe tribe trying to learn and bring back his native Anishinaabemowin language. Tall Paul uses both English and his native language in the video as he travels through parts of Minneapolis trying to recover pieces of his linguistic past. Luke shared the music video with the whole class the next day. In the discussion that followed, another student shared his Native American heritage for the first time, then repeated one of the song’s catchy refrains in Anishinaabemowin.
Why did “Prayers in a Song” resonate so much with the students? Tall Paul’s four-minute video made the themes students grappled with in their westward expansion/invasion assignments more audible, more visible. Students researched and wrote in their journals about the motivations of the Lewis and Clark expedition members, in addition to the impact of it on the tribes they encountered. One student was inspired to write about a fictional teenage girl trying to learn Navajo to keep her culture and history alive. To write the story, she used language-learning website Duolingo’s new Navajo program.
In addition to the project-based learning, students wanted to know more about Tall Paul. We wrote to him after finding his email on social media, and when his response came two days later, the students were thrilled. I told them I would try my best to invite him as a guest speaker. A few phone calls later, Tall Paul agreed to visit California in March 2019. He would lead writing workshops for eighth grade students and share his personal story with a few high school classes. Tall Paul would also perform a short concert for 60 eighth graders. In early 2020, Tall Paul visited again. We expanded the format to have the eighth graders host a cross-campus concert in front of a crowd of 200 that included elementary school students from the third, fourth, and fifth grades, as well as a dozen faculty members.

A Tall Man in a Small Classroom

I first met Tall Paul at LAX after his flight from Minneapolis landed. He had a long, black ponytail and a red T-shirt from the St. Francis Indian School in South Dakota, where he had visited earlier in 2019. At 6 foot 3 and 270 pounds, he certainly lived up to his name and defied stereotypes. Tall Paul bridges two worlds—he’s a member of the Leech Lake Reservation and lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Kids in the city and on the reservation experience the same thing. Students can experience somebody like me in opposition to those stereotypes,” he told me as we grabbed some Los Angeles tacos.
In a typical year, Tall Paul gets about half of his speaker invitations from Native American schools. He travels all over the country, but this was his first visit to a Los Angeles school. Tall Paul greeted the eighth grade students in the school’s theater. He performed his best known “Prayers in a Song,” which most of them knew well. The song that followed is titled “Someone Great Who Looked Like Me,” and is about Jim Thorpe. It speaks to not having role models growing up. His lyrics are a musical homage to an athlete who has gone largely ignored by the likes of Sports Illustrated and ESPN over many decades. For many students in Los Angeles, they had no idea Jim Thorpe ever played. “I just needed someone great who looked like me,” Tall Paul raps. “Jim Thorpe, you could be my Muhammad Ali.”
During the writing workshop, Tall Paul introduced a “Where I Am From” creative writing prompt that asked students to write about their identities. He pushed them to think beyond geography. The whole class started writing. When they finished, they shared their responses with Tall Paul and the rest of the group. One student spoke about how her mother had moved from Nigeria to the United States at the age of 12 and how she struggled to keep practicing her Igbo language with her children; another described speaking Spanish at home and English at school; and another recalled the story of how his great-great-grandfather fled Austria to escape the invading Nazis. In this way, the assignment enabled students to express multiple dimensions of identity.

A Hip-Hop Lesson

Tall Paul spoke at length to the classes he visited. He described himself as part of a centuries-long line of storytellers. Hip-hop is how he delivers his message to a growing audience. “Hip-hop is also a powerful tool for connecting with youth and communities in general. Because it is such a widespread culture, and it is a culture and not just a music genre, it has a history.”

The history of hip-hop, something Paul spoke to with great passion, is larger than one group. “Hip-hop is rooted in the liberation of people of color. You know, so, when I can go places, to native communities or even non-native communities, and share my story, what I’m really doing is trying to inspire those people and do my part in trying to liberate them too.”
He helped students see how much the past matters to the present. “I’ve got to share how history made us who we are today: We are this way, and we have these struggles, because the white man gave us alcohol and gave us drugs, and took away our resources, literally killed off our animals so that we would starve and have to depend only on the government for rations. And they took our land from us, put us on reservations and inner cities that we were not used to, put us in boarding schools, stripped away our languages, and even outlawed them."

Why History Classrooms Need to Flip the Narrative 

Before heading back to LAX for his flight to Minneapolis, Tall Paul reflected on the increasing demand for visiting schools. “I think that’s the most important thing: You have to bring in Natives to teach their Native perspective. You can’t just be teaching something about Natives and not bring them in.”
Not all schools have the privilege of bringing in Tall Paul for a visit. But his music videos are all online. Playing his songs in class is a way to bring in those voices and go beyond textbooks about Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion. The story is far more complex. Hearing directly from Tall Paul or other Native Americans gives students firsthand information that can’t be neatly contained in an academic class. Even novels like Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian can provide limited views of life on a reservation—and make it seem like getting out is the key to completing the “rags to riches” story for hope and redemption.
What students see in Tall Paul is a master storyteller flipping the decades-old narrative of defeat and suffering to one of empowerment and strength. He is not alone. Native Americans continue to create, persevere, and thrive in the United States.

Watch a video of Tall Paul’s school visit here.
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Alex Cussen

Alex Cussen teaches humanities at Wildwood School in Los Angeles, California, where he is also the humanities department chair.