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American Scene: Closing the Ignorance Gap Volume 54 Number 4, July/August 2001
by Jerald T. Milanich

Florida's once neglected history and prehistory now get top billing in K-12 textbooks statewide.

It was parents' night in Gainesville, Florida, the year 1987. Squeezed into an undersized desk and leafing through my daughter's eighth-grade social science textbook, my emotions went from disbelief to dismay. The missions of Spanish colonial Florida were not mentioned, nor were the early French settlements in Florida and South Carolina. The history of the United States began with Jamestown and the Pilgrims. Worse, the 12,000 or more years in which Indians had lived in Florida, from the time of the Paleoindians to the present, were also ignored.

The experience came flooding back the other day when I was clicking through my morning e-mail. One message from a school in St. Petersburg caught my attention: "Our fourth-grade class is doing a project on famous Floridians," it read. "One girl has selected Cacique María. I am having a very rough time even finding a mention of her. Could you help us find information? Anything would be greatly appreciated. " I put the teacher in touch with one of my graduate students who is writing a book about female chiefs in the southeastern United States.

This case is not an isolated one. My e-mail regularly brings queries from students for information about Precolumbian and colonial Florida. Their questions often stem from something they have read in one or another of the popular books my colleagues and I wrote in the mid-1990s: How did Indians store corn? What wood was used to make dugout canoes? Did Indians use cast nets?

Florida's experience is not unique. The Society for American Archaeology, an organization that has lobbied hard for curricular reform, reports a growing awareness among educators nationwide of the need to incorporate such information in the standard curricula. Knowing about our Native American heritage is now as important as being able to name the U.S. presidents.

Jerald T. Milanich is curator in archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America