Teaching Children about Native Americans
How teachers can avoid promoting stereotypes
by Diane Tells His Name, Oglala Lakota
My name is Diane Tells His Name, Oglala Lakota. I have been an Indian Child foster parent, parent mentor, speaker and concerned mom of native children for many years. I am currently working at a Tribal Cultural Center helping to undo 500 years of "stereotyping" of the First Peoples of this country. I have a website titled Native American Education for Educators that was begun by several of my native friends who were running into the same concerns as was I regarding the presentation of Native Peoples in the school, scout groups, etc. The address is:
To begin, what do you think of when you think of the word "Indian"? What images immediately come into your mind? If you are like the majority of the population, you will think of dark skinned men on horses dressed in hides and feathers. You will think of buffalo and teepees, war whoops, wagon trains being encircled with the Calvary on the way to "rescue" the pioneers. The Lakota Nation and other Plains People of the Americas is what typically is envisioned when the word "Indian" is brought up. This image is not only incorrect for the other 499 Nations of native people in this country, but it is stereotypical of what people think of when they think of "Indians".
This image comes from a number of sources, including our own schooling. Think back in elementary school, making Indian "tom-toms" out of oatmeal boxes. "War bonnets" made of construction paper and feathers. Maybe you added "war paint" to your face and stomped around the room patting your hand onto your mouth so as to make the "war whoop." Just as a reminder, many of the students in your school may have been Indian/Native American, but do you think they would ever come forward after a lesson such as that? The depiction of the California Mission era is particularly inaccurate and is constantly being revised, with California Indian input.
Times have changed, but not that much. My own grandchildren (in the 5th, 3rd, 1st grades and preschool), are taunted and ridiculed on the playground, usually on the first or second day of school when the students are allowed to "tell" a bit about themselves and their family. Our family and extended family attend many native gatherings and powwows as do many other native families. The grandchildren speak freely of this and other things our family does, perceived as "odd" or "weird" by non-Native children. Fellow students ask the grandchildren if they live in a teepee, if they have to kill their dinner, if they…if they…if they…I believe this is due to student's lack of knowledge regarding native people in this day and age and I applaud your organization for making the efforts and taking the time to help the schools become a place of true education and learning.
In addition, to help the grandchildren deal with this, I have made myself available to any of their classes, to come and speak about our people and the other people (Nations) of this country. I make sure to start the lesson with the understanding that we are Citizens of two nations…the United States and our Nation of birth (Lakota, Crow, Kumeyaay, etc.) and I make sure to let the classmates know that we live in regular house, eat at MacDonald's, use a microwave, drive a car and vacation at Disneyland, just like they do! This is one of the most important points you as an educator can make about the First Nations People…that we are not relics of the past, we are here among the people, and we live and work and go to school right beside you. Our past is just different, because our past is here, while most of the students are from a European background.
An excellent way to begin a conversation or explorative regarding Native American People and the stereotypes associated with them is to ask the students to write FIVE words that they think of right off the top of their heads describing the word "Indian." You can go from this point with explaining about this country's First Peoples.
Following is an excellent list for teachers regarding "Do's and Don'ts when teaching about Native American Peoples.
Appropriate Methods When Teaching About Native American Peoples:
Understand the term "Native American" includes all peoples indigenous to the Western Hemisphere.
Present Native American Peoples as appropriate role models to children.
Native American students should not be singled out and asked to describe their families' traditions or their peoples' culture(s).
Avoid the assumption there are no Native American students in your class.
Use books and materials which are written and illustrated by Native American people as primary source materials: speeches, songs, poems, and writings, which show the linguistic skill of a people who have come from an oral tradition.
When teaching ABC's, avoid "I is for Indian" and "E is for Eskimo."
Avoid rhymes or songs that use Native Americans as counting devices, i.e. "One little, two little, three little..."
Research the traditions and histories, oral and written, of Native Americans before attempting to teach these.
Avoid referring to or using materials which depict Native Americans as "savages," "primitives," "The Noble Savage," "Red Man," "Red Race," "simple," or "extinct."
Present Native American Peoples as having unique, separate, and distinct cultures, languages, beliefs, traditions, and customs.
Avoid materials which use non-Native Americans or other characters dressed as "Indians."
Avoid craft activities that trivialize Native American dress, dance, and beliefs, i.e. toilet-paper roll kachinas or "Indian dolls," paper bag and construction paper costumes and headdresses. Research authentic methods and have the proper materials.
Realize that many songs, dances, legends, and ceremonies of Native American Peoples are considered sacred and should not be "invented" or portrayed as an activity.
If your educational institution employs images or references to Native American peoples as mascots, i.e. "Redskins," "Indians," "Chiefs," "Braves," etc., urge your administration to abandon these offensive names.
Correct and guide children when they "war whoop," use "jaw-breaker" jargon, or employ any other stereotypical mannerisms.
Depict Native American peoples, past and present, as heroes who are defending their people, rights, and lands.
Avoid manipulative phases and wording such as "massacre," "victory," and "conquest" which distort facts and history.
Teach Native American history as a regular part of American History and discuss what went wrong or right.
Avoid materials and texts which illustrate Native American heroes as only those who helped Europeans and Euro-Americans, i.e. Thanksgiving.
Use materials and texts which outline the continuity of Native American societies from past to present.
Use materials which show respect and understanding of the sophistication and complexities of Native American societies.
Understand and impart that the spiritual beliefs of Native American Peoples are integral to the structure of our societies and are not "superstitions" or "heathen."
Invite a Native American guest speaker/presenter to your class or for a school assembly. Contact a local Native American organization or your library for a list of these resources. Offer an honorarium or gift to those who visit your school.
Avoid the assumption that a Native American person knows everything about all Native Americans.
Use materials which show the value Native American Peoples place on our elders, children, and women. Avoid offensive terms such as "papoose," and "squaw." Use respectful language.
Understand that not all Native American Peoples have "Indian" surnames, but familiar European and Hispanic names as well.
Help children understand Native American Peoples have a wide variety of physical features, attributes, and value as do people of ALL cultures and races.
Most of all, teach children about Native Americans in a manner that you would like used to depict YOUR culture and racial/ethnic origin.
© 1998; Ableza Institute
Other helpful resources:
Exploring Native Americans Across the Curriculum. Blast stereotypes with across-the-curriculum activities for students of all ages.
California State Curriculum (what our state must do for State History Studies)
Books to avoid, and why. Brought to you by Oyate Press.
The transcript of a Teachers.Net chat, "Teaching Young Children About Native Americans" with Debbie Reese: http://teachers.net/archive/
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