• EDUCATOR | AUTHOR | SPEAKER | MAKER 

  • I had an online interaction recently with a first-year history teacher, who posted some activities for teaching Native American history that included turning First Nation people into cartoonish pop culture figurines and building tipis in the classroom. When I pointed out that these activities were culturally insensitive and appropriative, they reacted defensively and dismissively, basically stating that “the other educators I’ve asked who have been teaching this subject for many years think it’s fine.” It’s not fine.

    I’ll begin by analyzing the two activities above. First, Indigenous people have been used as characters in racist, exploitative cartoons and other pop culture mediums for hundreds of years. Creating these figurines that are cartoonish or fantasy and exaggerated in style add to that shameful history. Creating stylized figures based on ones that people collect objectifies and fetishizes Native American cultures. Finally, this project adds nothing to a student’s understanding of Native cultures, either in the past or present.

    It’s also inappropriate to build and use tipis. Tipis are not just shelter; they are sacred, ceremonial centers to many First Nations. Every part of the tipi, from the design to the act of building and using one has ritual and meaning. Many Native people have written on the commercial appropriation of tipis in response to companies selling them as play tents or classroom teachers using them as reading nooks. Their assertion is clear that this not only demeans the function of tipis, but adds to the objectification and fetishizing of Native American cultures. This is not a structure to be played with, nor is it appropriate to personify the lives of Indigenous people. Unless you have brought in a Native educator to oversee the project, building a tipi will lack the historical, spiritual, and communal significance that it deserves and will most likely embody the stereotypes that abound when hands-on learning for Native American history is approached in ignorance.

    Unfortunately, the reaction of the educators mentioned above did not surprise me. There is an enormous deficiency in the teaching community of knowledge and cultural sensitivity around this subject. In the Reclaiming Native Truth project, research found that:

    Nearly half of Americans say that what they were taught in schools about Native Americans was inaccurate; 72 percent say it is necessary to make significant changes to the school curriculum on Native American history and culture. In focus groups with parents and teachers, both groups recognize that the school curriculum covering Native Americans is under-representative and inaccurate. Teachers rate “history of Native American peoples” and “pre-Columbian American history and culture” as two of the worst subjects in terms of coverage and accuracy.”

    “A study of schools in 2011–2012 found that nearly 87 percent of state history standards failed to cover Native American history in a post-1900 context and that 27 states did not specifically name any individual Native Americans in their standards at all. People interviewed said that they feel that what they learned — or are teaching — in school about Native culture is inaccurate, and they strongly supported the need for curriculum change. Education is vital. When non-Natives understand that Native peoples still face prejudice and discrimination, they are more likely to support Native issues.”

    “Americans admit to genocide of Native Americans, though they significantly underappreciate the scale and force of violence that has taken place since 1492. Many believe atrocities done to Native Americans ended in the 19th century and underestimate the current levels of discrimination faced by Native peoples in comparison with other racial and ethnic groups and LGBTQI people.”

    It is the responsibility of every educator, and especially historians and history educators, to decolonize historiography (how history has been/is written) and how history is taught. It is our job to research and understand diverse voices and perspectives, and to respect the point of view of the people whose story we are sharing. History is a constantly evolving body of work, and we have the opportunity to change the way it is approached. By looking closely at and eliminating bias, colonial indoctrination, and the suppression of Native voices, we can teach more truthful and inclusive history. But we need to do the work. There is absolutely no excuse not to. As a non-Native who teaches Native American history in my classes and in the curriculum I develop, I am constantly learning and adjusting my perspective and practice to educate myself and my students on the rich and accurate histories and vibrant cultures of the First Nations. As Howard Rainer, a citizen of the Taos Pueblo-Creek nation, says, “Children learn from what they see. We need to set an example of truth and action.”

    (Tlingit) Potlatch Totem Park in Ketchikan, Alaska.

    The history of the Indigenous people of the United States begins long before Europeans made their way to the Americas and continues to this day. There are many ways to learn about Native American history and current events without resorting to offensive stereotypes and cultural appropriation. As Cristine Boatman says in her article Lessons Learned in Teaching Native American History: “Be humble, find the gaps in your knowledge, and listen to Native voices.”

    Here are the lessons I would add:

    • Native American history is American history and therefore is essential and mandatory. Period.
    • Before I teach a lesson or design an activity, I do extensive research, looking primarily at Native writing, videos, and interviews on the subject. I also have all my writing and projects peer-reviewed by someone who is not only an expert in Native American history, but identifies as such culturally. Or I use lessons and projects that were specifically designed by a Native educator or organization.
    • You should know whose stolen land you are living on and make learning about those Native groups a priority. Check out Native Land for an awesome map, complete with a teacher’s guide, on this subject. You should also learn about what local Native issues you can incorporate into your teaching and support with community action. For example, when I was living in Berkeley, CA, my students and I got involved in the effort to preserve the West Berkeley Shellmound site. Now that I’m in Colorado, I’m learning about land use issues and corporations causing environmental contamination on First Nation land. If you do get involved, make sure that you are respectful and listen to what Native leaders need and want in terms of community action.
    • When I have been unable to find the information I am looking for, I contact a First Nation national organization like the NIEA or AIM. Note that local chapters of national organizations often have more ability to respond to questions. I prefer, however, to be in contact with an organization that was founded and is run by a specific First Nation to build lessons and projects that are distinct and identified with that group. There are 573 First Nations in the United States alone, each with their own identities, traditions, perspectives, preferences, and boundaries. Treating all Native Americans as one group is inappropriate, disingenuous, and unscholarly.
    • Native American history is not complete or finished. There are currently over 5 million Native Americans in the United States, comprising a substantial part of our community. Making connections between the history we are studying and current First Nation locations, activities, and issues is important and relevant.
    • Native Americans do not need non-Native people to speak for them. They can and do speak for themselves. Our job as allied educators and historians is to listen and then help amplify Native voices telling their own stories.
    • To quote Maya Angelou, “when you know better, do better.” Being defensive or dismissive because of lessons or projects you have done in the past gets you nowhere. Admitting you can do better and then striving for more thoughtful, accurate teaching now and in the future will contribute to your own growth, the more holistic education of your students, and a shift in the larger educational community around historiography and curriculum development.

    Below you will find a starter list of resources for teaching Native American History. Many of the resources in this list were approved or contributed by Kelly Tudor, a citizen of the Lipan Apache, Native American educator and consultant, and AIM co-chair. As Kelly says, “It is important to learn about Native peoples from actual Natives. We tell our stories best. Try to use Native authors and resources as much as possible. Also be sure to teach about modern Native peoples, not just our past!”

    Books for Educators:

    Rethinking Schools: Unlearning ‘Indian’ Stereotypes (DVD) and Rethinking Columbus, The Next 500 Years (Book)

    Pulling Together: A Guide for Indigenization of Post-Secondary Institutions by Asma-na-hi Antione, Rachel Mason, Roberta Mason, Sophia Palahicky, and Carmen Rodriguez de France

    Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith

    Books for Educators and Students:

    Lessons From Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Years – by Guy Jones and Sally Moomaw

    A Kid’s Guide to Native American History by Yvonne Wakim Dennis

    An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

    An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese

    American Indian Contributions to the World (5 books) by Emory Dean Keoke

    (Medicine and Health; Food, Farming and Hunting; Trade, Transportation, and Warfare; Science and Technology; Buildings, Clothing and Art)

    Online Resources for Native-authored Books, Recommendations, and Resources:

    Oyate.org (Native-authored resources and books)

    Strong Nations (Native-authored books)

    Birchbark Books (Native-authored books and resources)

    Eaglespeaker Publishing (Native-authored books)

    Online Resources for Teaching:

    National Indian Education Association (NIEA)

    American Indian Movement (AIM)

    Reclaiming Native Truth

    Cradleboard Teaching Project

    Native Teaching Aids

    Native 360: Transforming Teaching and Learning about Native Americans (from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian)

    Understanding Prejudice: Teaching About Native American Issues

    Decolonizing Thanksgiving: A Toolkit for Combatting Racism in Schools

    Teaching Respect for Native Peoples

    More on teaching about Native American History in Pre-school and Kindergarten

    American Indians in Children’s Literature (Native perspective and analysis)

    Teaching Tolerance (this website has several relevant articles, lesson plans, and activities)

    Infusing Indigenous Perspectives in K-12 Teaching (University of Toronto)

    Illuminatives/Native Now (lesson plans and resources)

    More Online Resources for Educators and Students:

    First Nations directory

    An Indigenous History of North America (blog)

    Native Languages and Resources

    Information on Powwows (including etiquette, dances, and drum styles)

    Indian Country Today (news source for current events, teaching resources)

    Indigenizing the News (current events, art and poetry, reviews)

    Video Game: When Rivers were Trails

    Video Game: Never Alone

    Two of my current favorite resources.

    I want to express my gratitude to Kelly Tudor for her collaboration on this article. If you are interested in working with her as a consultant on Native American history and cultures, you can reach her at ktudor15@gmail.com. I’d also like to thank Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz for her inspiring, rich, and thought-and-action-provoking writing and lectures, from which I have learned so much.

    As a historian and an educator, I am dedicated to the truthful, inclusive evolution of historiography. For questions or discussions, please use the contact page on this website or message me through social media. If you’d like more information on my work, you can visit Pandia Press for my upcoming History Odyssey series (Level 2- Middle School/High School), SEA Publishing for my new co-authored book on Project-Based Learning, which contains several pre-planned history projects, or follow me here and on social media for some new history releases this spring.