That time of year has arrived. Harvest, turkeys, apple picking, pumpkin pies, and the story of the Indians and Pilgrims sharing the First Thanksgiving. It seems to be the only time of year we consider the historical or cultural impact “Indians” had on our lives: as a vague story of peace and harmony between the two groups who cohabited the area around Plymouth Rock. But, with November being Native American Heritage Month, more families are taking a closer look at the contributions Native Americans have made to our history and society.
Bringing the discussion of Native history to our conversations today can be a very difficult subject to find reliable information on. There are books, crafts, movies, and shows, all shaping the view our society has of what it is to be Indian. So, how do we bring that discussion to our children, in a way that is respectful of true Native heritage?
Question Perceptions. Like the story of the Pilgrims and Indians, most of us have been taught a pretty one-sided view of the Indians. We’ve formed opinions of what it is to be an Indian, what they looked and sounded like. Where they lived. From sources that may have had very little truth to their stories. Movies like Peter Pan and Indian in the Cupboard influence with stereotypes. To start teaching Native culture to our children, we need to first take a look at where our information came from and step out of the Eurocentric view.
Start Small. To teach about Indian culture as a wide view would be like teaching Asian culture similarly. The US is a large country, and we should no more teach about Coast Salish tribes (Washington) and those that are part of the Iroquois Confederacy (New York) as one topic than we would combine the history and culture for peoples of Bangkok and Tokyo. By keeping the focus on one area at time, you reduce your chances of sweeping generalizations and stereotypes. Utilize local tribal museums and libraries. If you don’t have anything local, use educational websites run by the tribes.
Bring It Home. Just as you would play Beethoven, hang Van Gogh, and read Tolkien, we make Native culture part of our worldview by having it represented in our homes: children’s books and puzzles, artwork, music, and language audio. Look for sources that are written and created by Native members.
The Story Doesn’t End at Cowboys and Indians. One of the greatest injustices you can do in teaching about Native culture is giving the perception that it is in the past. By not offering examples of modern contributions to our communities and society, we perpetuate the idea of the Old Indian. While it can be said that many groups are working to reclaim their history after centuries of oppression and continuing to celebrate their heritage, the image of the Indian wearing beads and feathers is not the whole of who Natives are. They are very much in the present. Men, women, and children around you. Wearing the same things you do, eating the same things you eat, living lives just like yours.
- Oyate has compiled a great collection for all ages with critical evaluation of books and curricula with Indian themes.
- American Indian and Indigenous Education provides information, including links to related websites, on the history and current thinking about American Indian and Indigenous education.
- The History network discusses the “cultural areas” of contiguous American Indians with links to further information.
- The USA.gov site has an A-Z Index of Tribal Governments, which includes links to their official websites.