All you have to do is glance at the media to know that racism, stereotypes and bias are alive and well in the U.S. And, while many ethnic groups endure these prejudices and indignities, there’s a special category of oppression for Native peoples of North America. This continent belonged to hundreds of nations before colonialists arrived and, bluntly, stole their lands, freedom, and often, lives from them. And, while there are derogatory terms used for most groups who are oppressed, American Indians are the only ones who still have mascots and sports teams named after them. Many people still dress up as an “Indian” for Halloween or other costumed-events. You’ll still find alphabet books in which “I” is for “Indian” – or that books about Native peoples tend to glom them all together into one mosaic of mishmashed culture. Children study Native peoples in school, but it’s usually a quick skimming through their past (“Each group will choose a tribe to research.”) or surrounding Columbus (who had a significant hand in the enslavement and genocide of Indians) and/or Thanksgiving.
Here are 5 tips to help increase your awareness and improve your teaching (or parenting) regarding the Indigenous peoples of North America:
- Do your homework. Before you begin teaching about Native peoples, research accurate, appropriate information and resources, so that you can be confident that what you’re sharing isn’t some dehumanized, romanticized or antiquated version of Native life and culture. There are numerous useful resources out there, many created and maintained by American Indians themselves. A couple of examples: the list of Native American websites by created Lisa Mitten, and the National Museum of the American Indian, which has online exhibitions, as well as resources for educators.
- Choose books, resources and materials that portray Native peoples accurately. There are a plethora of books, films and other materials that perpetuate negative and/or inaccurate stereotypes and biases about American Indians, and few that portray their lives, voices and cultures with accuracy. One important question to ask yourself is whether the work is from a Native writer or not. Some might think that Native American legends and folklore would be safe, but authors who “retell” these stories aren’t always careful, respectful, or cognizant of Native cultures. There are some good resources available to help you. For example, an article from School Library Journal offers an annotated list of books to choose from, and a longer list of suggested titles comes from the same author of the SLJ article, Debbie Reese, who is an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and who runs the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature (which is itself an excellent resource).
“I is for Inclusion: The Portrayal of Native Americans in Books for Young People,” (PDF) created by the American Indian Library Association, is another useful resource, which offers a brief overview of what to look for in books for young people, provides suggested resources, a few titles to avoid and several to look for.
And, Oyate is a community-based Native organization that provides books, DVDs and other materials and resources about Native peoples.
- Watch out for stereotypes and biases. Films like Disney’s Pocahontas. Books like The Indian in the Cupboard. The Redskins. The Tomahawk chop. Halloween costumes. We’re surrounded by stereotypes about Native peoples. Many are less blatant than the above, and we in mainstream culture don’t even give them a second thought. But such biases are a detriment to the well-being of Native peoples and condone and nurture institutional racism on a large but largely unnoticed scale. Just one example: psychologists and justice advocates are supporting a group who is suing to end the Redskins NFL trademark because such perpetuated stereotypes have been shown to “depress the self-esteem and feelings of community worth and limit the aspirations of Native high school and college students.” Additionally, consider, when you’re teaching about whatever topic – science, history, literature, art – are American Indian voices and views represented? Remember that bias is also about who or what is not included. Look for resources such as “Erasing Native American Stereotypes” and the Unlearning Indian Stereotypes DVD from Rethinking Schools to help you with these challenges.
- Get out of the past. Many school children (and no few adults) think of Indians as something that existed in the past. When learning about Native peoples, it’s often from an historical perspective and not about their lives today. History is an important part of everyone’s culture, but so is the present. Look for resources and teaching ideas for exploring Native lives and cultures today. When people think about the atrocities perpetrated on American Indians, they also think of the past. But, Indians are still adversely affected by the choices of mainstream culture and government policies. But, avoid the mistake of portraying Native peoples as helpless victims. The hundreds of nations offer rich and varied lives, cultures, issues and leaders to explore.
- Dive deeper and broader into resources and issues. Much teaching about Native peoples centers around a cursory exploration as part of Columbus Day or Thanksgiving, or perhaps a “unit” exploring tribes as they lived in the past. Avoid these pitfalls, and look for richer, more meaningful teaching. But, if you are going to teach about Columbus, then use a resource such as Rethinking Schools’s book, Rethinking Columbus, which provides a broader and deeper exploration of the issues. If you are teaching about Thanksgiving, forego the standard “Indians and pilgrims” treatment and look to resources such as American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving and resources such as those suggested on Oyate and Debbie Reese’s blog. If you’re required to teach one of the books on the “biased” list, then pair that with an exploration of the stereotypes, biases and misrepresentations present in the book, and then choose an additional book that portrays Native peoples more accurately. And remember that American Indian children are one of many cultures and ethnicities potentially represented in your classroom. Have students learn more and share about their own cultures and traditions with their fellow students. Look at the common challenges they share. Celebrate changemakers and leaders from a variety of cultures, not just the traditional Western perspective.
For additional ideas, check out resources such as:
Debbie Reese’s essay “Teaching Young Children About Native Americans.”
The article “The Voices of Power and the Power of Voices: Teaching with Native American Literature” (PDF) by Marlinda White-Kaulaity.
Image courtesy of patrickmccully via Creative Commons.
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