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Suzanne Flint and Stacey Sager, NEH Summer Scholars 2015

The American Dream

Lesson Plan by Suzanne Flint and Stacey Sager

High School


The American Dream is defined as “a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers." Most non-white citizens, however, find this dream either unattainable or non-representative of their own cultural aspirations.  As David L. Moore notes in his book That Dream Shall Have a Name, the American Dream is culturally based and limited to a select group of people.  He says, “As Daniel Heath Justice writes, ‘Nationhood is woven in large part from the lives, dreams, and challenges of the people who compose the body politic’” (Our Fire Survives the Storm 7). The American dream is just that.  While some might argue that the Indigenous people of the United States are, in fact, citizens of this country, that is not all they are, or who they are often represented as.   William W. Bevis also discusses disparity between cultural norms.  He says, “American whites keep leaving home.” However, “in marked contrast, most Native American novels are not about going out, diverging, expanding, but about zooming in, converging, contracting. The hero comes home.” (230-231).  The concept of people moving back home is not representative, and in some cases, the complete opposite of what the ‘body politic’ would consider normal social movement.  

Today, the American Dream is typically represented through the desire to buy a house in the best neighborhood, in which to raise the appropriate amount of children.  But does this ‘Dream’ reflect the views of Indigenous people?  Or, how accessible has this dream been or is this dream to them? How has the concept of the American Dream affected Indigenous people? 

Building off of the Essential Understandings Regarding Montana Indians and with our colleagues in mind, this unit explores the concept of the “American Dream” in an 11th grade chronological American Literature course and specifically through the use of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and D’Arcy McNickle’s Wind From an Enemy Sky. Our aim is not only to compare the differing perspectives of the “American Dream” as it pertains to nonwhites and whites in the 1920s & 30s (through characters from both novels as well as historical sources), but also the complexities in which these characters exemplify and explore concerning Identity and community.

In addition to using the two novels, each of us will focus on locally relevant tribes (the Salish formally in the Bitterroot Valley and the Assiniboine and Sioux currently in the Fort Peck Reservation) when discussing Indigenous history, issues, etc. and bring in sources pertaining to such when appropriate and available.

Brief Overview

This unit is intended to deconstruct the American Dream and its effects on Indigenous People by comparing The Great Gatsby and Wind from an Enemy Sky.  Many students have to read Gatsby in American Literature classes, but few look at what else was happening in America during the same/following time period. Our unit asks the question: What effects does the American Dream have on Indigenous People and how they achieved/were prevented from achieving their own dreams? Using a variety of sources specific to location (Bitterroot Valley and Fort Peck) students will explore histories surrounding indigenous people and the land as well as treatment/representation, etc. of indigenous people in the 1920s and 30s. 

Pedagogical Statement

The pedagogical philosophy of this unit consists of challenging students to reevaluate what they think they know, engaging students with an Indigenous Perspective, teaching students the importance of multiple perspectives, comparing those perspectives, and emphasizing the practice of collaborative learning.

We work to help students make connections between their previous experiences and new understandings while reading literature.  We recognize the importance of assisting students as they discover connections among their personal and classroom experiences.  Students examine those connections through readings, writing assignments, discussions, thoughtful contemplations, and even field trips for land-based connections.  Encouraging students to discuss those connections instead of remaining silent will help students redefine their own definitions of ‘Identity’, ‘Sovereignty’, and ‘Community’, as well as to better understand another’s definitions.

This is a comparative unit meant to challenge students to see the United States through both the white and Indigenous Perspectives.  Students will make connections between a variety of cultures and time periods through the overall lens of the American Dream, Identity, and Community as well as ideas of class disparity, economy, status, and more found in both novels.

Learning Outcomes:

●Students will be able to define and critique the concept of the American Dream as it pertains to white and non-white populations.

●Students will explore and critically analyze both texts in terms of representation of whites and nonwhites, class disparity and economic conditions, and culture.

●Students will be able to identify, comprehend, interpret and analyze with understanding literary devices/techniques such as characterization, tone, voice, point of view and other elements in both novels.

●Students will compare and contrast the use of literary devices/techniques and style of both authors and texts.

●Students will be able to understand how perspective influences meaning and is influenced by historical, cultural, and personal experiences. How will you evaluate this?

●Students will gain knowledge of the history and culture of the Salish and Kootenai tribes and the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.

●Students will be able to explain some of the ways Federal Indian Policy and the concept of allotment directly impacted the lives of Indigenous people in the past and how it continues to influence them in the present.

●Students will be able to understand the historical and contemporary diversity of tribes and individuals as well as significance of historical, political and cultural influences. Students will be able to clearly and effectively demonstrate oral, written, and/or artistic responses to ideas in both novels.


We will introduce this unit with the guiding question, “What is the American Dream?” This will include defining the “American Dream” and talking about the socio-economic, cultural, and racial biases surrounding the American Dream. We will explore the concept and its effects through both white and nonwhite perspectives throughout the unit.

Continuing the chronological approach of our English curriculum, we will start this unit with The Great Gatsby. This begins with frontloading the novel with general background information of the era, “The Roaring Twenties” which will include the typical westernized perspective along with information concerning Indigenous people of the United States.  Students will be asked to explore the larger history of the United States through the lens of the novel, specifically focusing on how the lives represented in the novel are removed from the reality of much of the rest of the country.  Students will read first-hand accounts of conditions on the Fort Peck Reservation, as well as examine the effect of the Citizenship Act on Indigenous People in the United States.  In their own words, students will define the terms ‘Identity’, ‘Sovereignty’, ‘Community’ and ‘The American Dream’.   Throughout the reading, students will complete the learning outcomes through close readings, group discussion, and other activities.

Following The Great Gatsby, we will continue exploring the concept of the “American Dream,” addressing the learning objectives and delving into the Essential Understandings through background and reading of Wind from an Enemy Sky.  Through the lens of this text, students will again define the terms ‘Identity’, ‘Sovereignty’, ‘Community’ and ‘The American Dream’.  These terms are the basis of comparison between the two novels.  It is from these definitions that students begin to see the complexity of what many of today’s citizens take for granted.  Again, students will read first-hand accounts and have the opportunity to view and discuss pictures taken in the 1930s on the Fort Peck Reservation.   The culminating project of this unit will be a final comparison between the “American Dream” concept in both novels, while addressing the issues of class disparity, Identity, and Sovereignty.

Throughout the unit, we aim to incorporate Early 20th century and contemporary primary outside sources with a focus on the tribes/tribal history of our respective locations, while also making comparisons between the Flathead and Fort Peck tribes.  These will include those first-hand accounts and photographs mentioned previously, but also interviews with Tribal Members and trips to the Fort Peck and Kerr Dams, respectively.

*Note: It is important to recognize the fact that it is not current standard practice to include a Native American novel in the American Literature curriculum.  This means that faculty, students, parents, or members of the community are not used to recognizing Native American Literature as part of the ‘Literary Canon’ taught in High Schools.  Depending on editions, most versions of Wind From an Enemy Sky are at least 60 pages longer than The Great Gatsby, and thus, more time will be spent discussing the details of the novel.  However, the goals of this unit are not possible without the foundation discussions of Identity, Sovereignty, Community, and the American Dream during the reading of The Great Gatsby.  While Gatsby is widely recognized as an American Literature classic, at minimum, equal time must be allowed to properly analyze and discuss Wind From an Enemy Sky.  One of the goals of this unit is to help normalize Indigenous Literature in the eyes of our students.  In order to develop more thoughtful, compassionate, and understanding young people, we must teach Indigenous perspectives and treat them with the same importance we would afford a white author.

Essential Understandings of Montana Indians exemplified/explored through the unit

Essential Understanding 1: “There is great diversity among the twelve tribal nations of Montana in their languages, cultures, histories and governments. Each Nation has a distinct and unique cultural heritage that contributes to modern Montana.”

 While the focus of D’arcy McNickle’s book is a fictional tribe that takes much of its history and culture from the Salish, a critique of the text does not limit itself to the Flathead Reservation.  In fact, the fictional tribe can be used to propel students into discussions about the many tribes in the state of Montana.  Also, with the collaboration and location of the unit authors, specific comparisons and reflections can be made between our local tribes. 

During one activity, students will identify the different Montana Tribes and discuss the prior knowledge they have about each. Then, throughout the unit, the instructor will build on that activity and discuss how each Tribe is currently responding to Tribal Sovereignty, Language and Culture revitalization, and Education.  These activities are meant to help students make connections to the different cultures that influence their lives as well as gain the understanding that they are distinct cultural groups.

Essential Understanding 2: “There is great diversity among individual American Indians as identity is developed, defined and redefined by entities, organizations and people. A continuum of Indian identity, unique to each individual, ranges from assimilated to traditional. There is no generic American Indian.” 

Wind from an Enemy Sky is a fantastic example of dynamic and diverse characters who navigate issues of identity as they are developed (Antoine) or redefined (i.e. Henry Jim) by entities, organizations, and people.  McNickle uses his novel to help the reader reflect on the varying voices and reactions within the tribe and what affect other tribal members and outside entities have on identity (both of the tribe as a whole and individual members). 

Additionally, students will have the opportunities to read first hand historical accounts from Montana Tribes, specifically within both the Fort Peck and Flathead Reservations. These first-hand accounts will be varied and purposefully chosen to reflect the diversity of individuals.  Students will work independently, in small groups, as well as in the whole class to read, discuss, and analyze the different perspectives in the novel and the first-hand accounts.  These activities will reflect the current topics of discussion that will be chosen to help student access the objectives.

Essential Understanding 3: “The ideologies of Native traditional beliefs and spirituality persist into modern day life as tribal cultures, traditions, and languages are still practiced by many American Indian people and are incorporated into how tribes govern and manage their affairs. Additionally, each tribe has its own oral histories, which are as valid as written histories. These histories pre-date the “discovery” of North America.”

While this unit will focus on The Great Gatsby and Wind From an Enemy Sky it will build on prior knowledge taught from the beginning of school year.  Our unit will not exist in a vacuum and is intended to guide students into critical discussions about topics that will have been presented throughout both in the History and English Curriculums.  Specifically, students will be challenged to trace the history and significance of the Feather Boy Bundle as it serves to demonstrate the connection between traditional and modern day practices.  This will help students make the connection between traditional and modern practices and those that have changed over time.

Essential Understanding 4: “Reservations are lands that have been reserved by the tribes for their own use through treaties, statutes, and executive orders and were not “given” to them. The principle that land should be acquired from the Indians only through their consent with treaties involved three assumptions:

1. Both parties to treaties were sovereign powers.

2. Indian tribes had some form of transferable title to the land.

3. Acquisition of Indian lands was solely a government matter not to be left to individual


This understanding will also be built upon prior knowledge taught within the History and English Curriculums. In addition to prior knowledge, students will focus on the history and effects of the Dawes Act of 1887 as well as the definition and practical applications of sovereignty (both historical and modern).

Students will examine first-hand accounts and pictures from the University of Montana Archives that offer students opportunities to see how reservations changed over time.  Students will also have the opportunity to read the Hellgate Treaty and examine the legal language used to formalize the treaty.

Essential Understanding 5: “There were many federal policies put into place throughout American history that have affected Indian people and still shape who they are today. Many of these policies conflicted with one another. Much of Indian history can be related through several major federal policy periods:

Colonization/Colonial Period 1492 – 1800s

Treaty Period 1789 - 1871

Assimilation Period - Allotment and Boarding School 1879 - 1934

Tribal Reorganization Period 1934 - 1958

Termination and Relocation Period 1953 - 1971

Self-determination Period 1968 – Present”

In this unit, our main focus will be the Assimilation and Tribal Reorganization Periods.  In addition, we will also focus on the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.  As our English Curriculums are chronological, we will focus on the Citizenship Act during our study of the Great Gatsby.  This conversation will be integral for connecting student understandings of the disparity between the affluent society presented in the novel and policies current to the 1920s regarding Indigenous Citizenship.  During our study of Wind From an Enemy Sky we will focus on the Assimilation and Tribal Reorganization Periods.

Essential Understanding 6: “History is a story most often related through the subjective experience of the teller. With the inclusion of more and varied voices, histories are being rediscovered and revised. History told from an Indian perspective frequently conflicts with the stories mainstream historians tell.”

Before the students dive into the Fall curriculum, they must complete a perspectives activity that helps them understand that experiences are subjective the understanding surrounding those experiences are fluid and changing.  One person’s experience does not reflect another person's’.  This activity will be referenced and discussed throughout the year.

In addition to the novel Wind From an Enemy Sky we will also incorporate, primary, documents and accounts concerning the indigenous histories of our local areas.  We will focus on helping students understand historical bias and the importance of multiple primary perspectives.

Essential Understanding 7: “Under the American legal system, Indian tribes have sovereign powers, separate and independent from the federal and state governments. However, the extent and breadth of tribal sovereignty is not the same for each tribe.”

Students will explore the multiple definitions of Sovereignty, specifically through how they are presented in both novels.  In addition, students will be required to analyze the current differences between the ideas of Sovereignty on the Flathead and Fort Peck Reservations.  This discussion will also touch on Understanding 2, where students will explore the idea that each individual member of a tribe may define Sovereignty differently.


American Dream: An American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also, the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal

American Dream (alternate definition):  James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (1931) stated that the American dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." (p.214-215)

Community: Consciousness of kind” (Iverson 22).

Identity: Native American Identity is found through the celebration of dance, food, gift giving, land, and ritual (Davies 188-191).  “The powwow became … a prevailing symbol of Indian identity” (Davies 188)

Indigenous People: “...populations composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part, under a state structure which incorporates mainly national, social, and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population which are predominant.

●(a) they are the descendants of groups, which were in the territory at the time when other groups of different cultures or ethnic origin arrived there;

●(b) precisely because of their isolation from other segments of the country’s population they have almost preserved intact the customs and traditions of their ancestors which are similar to those characterized as indigenous;

●(c) they are, even if only formally, placed under a state structure which incorporates national, social and cultural characteristics alien to their own; and

●(d) any individual who identified himself or herself as indigenous and was accepted by the group or the community as one of its members was to be regarded as an indigenous person” (UN/WGIP)

Sovereignty:   “In its many expressions, sovereignty is a spirit of sacrifice that tribal people feel for their nation. It is enshrined in legal, political, economic, and cultural traditions, and it animates individual and institutional commitments to Native community and identity” (Moore 38).


Working Bibliography

“Aneas Finley, Chief Charlo and Victor Vanderberg, Bitterroot, Medicine Tree Powow.” Photograph. 1923. 15 July 2015.

“American Dream” Def. 2. Merriam Webster Online, iMerriam Webster, n.d. Web. 16 July 2015.

Bevis, William. "Bad Medicine: D'Arcy McNickle Locates Liberalism and the Left from a Tribal Perspective." Regionalists on the Left: Radical Voices from the American West. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 2013. 228-258. Print.

Bigcrane, Roy and Thompson Smith. The Place of Falling Waters. 1991. Video.

Carrington, Henry B. “Consolidated map of Indian and Settler’s Lands in Bitterroot Valley.” Washington, D.C. 1890. Map.  15 July 2015

Carrington, Henry B. The Exodus of the Flatheads from Their Ancestral Home in the Garden Valley to the Jocko Reservation. circa 1900. Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library, University of Montana. 15 July 2015.

Cherry A. McGee Banks & James A. Banks. “Equity pedagogy: An essential component of multicultural education, Theory Into Practice”, 34:3, 1995. 152-158

“Chief Charlo and group of Flathead Indians, Medicine Tree Powwow.” Photograph, 1923.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Schibner, 1925. Print.

“Flathead Indians near Stevensville.” Photograph, 1890.

Iverson, Peter, and Wade Davies. "We Are All Indians" "We Are Still Here": American Indians since 1890. Second ed. Southern Gate: John Wiley & Sons, 2015. Print.

Lewis, R.W.B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

McNickle, D’Arcy. Wind from an Enemy Sky. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978. Print.

Miller, David Reed. The History of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, 1800-2000. Helena: Fort Peck Community College, 2008. Print.

Moore, David L. That Dream Shall Have a Name: Native Americans Rewriting America. Lincoln, NE, USA: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. Print.

"Official Definitions of Indigeneity." Indigeneity Language and Authenticity. UN / WGIP, 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 13 June 2015.

OPI. Essential Understandings Regarding Montana Indians. Helena: Montana Office of Public Instruction, 2012. Print.

Smith, Thompson. “A Brief History of Kerr Dam and the Reservation.” The Lower Flathead River Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana: A Cultural, Historical, and Scientific Resource. David Rockwell, Compiler with Revisions by Bill Swaney. (18‐38) Pablo, MT: Salish Kootenai College Tribal History Project, 2008. (Book provided to Montana school libraries by the Office of Public Instruction)

Umphrey, Christabel. Model Teaching Unit - Language Arts - Secondary Level for D’Arcy McNickle’s Wind from and Enemy Sky. Montana Office of Public Instruction.