ERIC Identifier: ED394744
Publication Date: 1996-05-00
Author: Reese, Debbie
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Teaching Young Children about Native Americans. ERIC Digest.
Young children's conceptions of Native Americans often develop out of media
portrayals and classroom role playing of the events of the First Thanksgiving.
The conception of Native Americans gained from such early exposure is both
inaccurate and potentially damaging to others. For example, a visitor to a child
care center heard a four-year-old saying, "Indians aren't people. They're all
dead." This child had already acquired an inaccurate view of Native Americans,
even though her classmates were children of many cultures, including a Native
American child. Derman-Sparks (1989) asserts that by failing to challenge
existing biases we allow children to adopt attitudes based on inaccuracies. Her
book is a guide for developing curriculum materials that reflect cultural
diversity. This digest seeks to build on this effort by focusing on teaching
children in early childhood classrooms about Native Americans. Note that this
digest, though it uses the term "Native American," recognizes and respects the
common use of the term "American Indian" to describe the indigenous people of
North America. While it is most accurate to use the tribal name when speaking of
a specific tribe, there is no definitive preference for the use of "Native
American" or "American Indian" among tribes or in the general literature.
STEREOTYPES CHILDREN SEE
Most young children are familiar
with stereotypes of the Native American. Stereotypes are perpetuated by
television, movies, and children's literature when they depict Native Americans
negatively, as uncivilized, simple, superstitious, blood-thirsty savages, or
positively, as romanticized heroes living in harmony with nature (Grant & Gillespie, 1992). The Disney Company presents both images in its films for
children. For example, in the film PETER PAN, Princess Tiger Lily's father
represents the negative stereotype as he holds Wendy's brothers hostage, while
in the film POCAHONTAS, Pocahontas represents the positive stereotype who
respects the earth and communicates with the trees and animals.
Many popular children's authors unwittingly perpetuate stereotypes. Richard
Scarry's books frequently contain illustrations of animals dressed in buckskin
and feathers, while Mercer Mayer's alphabet book includes an alligator dressed
as an Indian. Both authors present a dehumanized image, in which anyone or
anything can become Native American simply by putting on certain clothes. TEN
LITTLE RABBITS, although beautifully illustrated, dehumanizes Native Americans
by turning them into objects for counting. BROTHER EAGLE, SISTER SKY (Harris,
1993) contains a speech delivered by Chief Seattle of the Squamish tribe in the
northwestern United States. However, Susan Jeffers' illustrations are of the
Plains Indians, and include fringed buckskin clothes and teepees, rather than
Squamish clothing and homes.
AN ACCURATE PICTURE OF NATIVE AMERICANS IN THE 1990s
Native Americans make up less than one percent of the total U.S. population
but represent half the languages and cultures in the nation. The term "Native
American" includes over 500 different groups and reflects great diversity of
geographic location, language, socioeconomic conditions, school experience, and
retention of traditional spiritual and cultural practices. However, most of the
commercially prepared teaching materials available present a generalized image
of Native American people with little or no regard for differences that exist
from tribe to tribe.
When teachers engage young children in
project work, teachers should choose concrete topics in order to enable children
to draw on their own understanding. In teaching about Native Americans, the most
relevant, interactive experience would be to have Native American children in
the classroom. Such experience makes feasible implementing anti-bias curriculum
suggestions. Teachers may want to implement the project approach (Katz &
Chard, 1989), as it will allow children to carry on an in-depth investigation of
a culture they have direct experience with. In these situations, teachers may
prepare themselves for working with Native American families by engaging in what
Emberton (1994) calls "cultural homework": reading current information about the
families' tribe, tribal history, and traditional recreational and spiritual
activities; and learning the correct pronunciation of personal names.
A number of positive strategies can be
used in classrooms, regardless of whether Native American children are members
of the class.
1. PROVIDE KNOWLEDGE ABOUT CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICANS to balance
historical information. Teaching about Native Americans exclusively from a
historical perspective may perpetuate the idea that they exist only in the past.
2. PREPARE UNITS ABOUT SPECIFIC TRIBES, rather than units about "Native
Americans." For example, develop a unit about the people of Nambe Pueblo, the
Turtle Mountain Chippewa, the Potawotami. Ideally, choose a tribe with a
historical or contemporary role in the local community. Such a unit will provide
children with culturally specific knowledge (pertaining to a single group)
rather than overgeneralized stereotypes.
3. LOCATE AND USE BOOKS THAT SHOW CONTEMPORARY CHILDREN OF ALL COLORS ENGAGED
IN THEIR USUAL, DAILY ACTIVITIES playing basketball, riding bicycles as well as
traditional activities. Make the books easily accessible to children throughout
the school year. Three excellent titles on the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico are:
PUEBLO STORYTELLER, by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith; PUEBLO BOY: GROWING UP IN TWO
WORLDS, by Marcia Keegan; and CHILDREN OF CLAY, by Rina Swentzell.
4. OBTAIN POSTERS THAT SHOW NATIVE AMERICAN CHILDREN IN CONTEMPORARY
CONTEXTS, especially when teaching younger elementary children. When selecting
historical posters for use with older children, make certain that the posters
are culturally authentic and that you know enough about the tribe depicted to
share authentic information with your students.
5. USE "PERSONA" DOLLS (dolls with different skin colors) in the dramatic
play area of the classroom on a daily basis. Dress them in the same clothing
(t-shirts, jeans) children in the United States typically wear and bring out
special clothing (for example, manta, shawl, moccasins, turquoise jewelry for
Pueblo girls) for dolls only on special days.
6. COOK ETHNIC FOODS but be careful not to imply that all members of a
particular group eat a specific food.
7. BE SPECIFIC ABOUT WHICH TRIBES USE PARTICULAR ITEMS, when discussing
cultural artifacts (such as clothing or housing) and traditional foods. The
Plains tribes use feathered headdresses, for example, but not all other tribes
8. CRITIQUE A THANKSGIVING POSTER DEPICTING THE TRADITIONAL, STEREOTYPED
PILGRIM AND INDIAN FIGURES, especially when teaching older elementary school
children. Take care to select a picture that most children are familiar with,
such as those shown on grocery bags or holiday greeting cards. Critically
analyze the poster, noting the many tribes the artist has combined into one
general image that fails to provide accurate information about any single tribe
9. AT THANKSGIVING, SHIFT THE FOCUS AWAY FROM REENACTING THE "FIRST
THANKSGIVING." Instead, focus on items children can be thankful for in their own
lives, and on their families' celebrations of Thanksgiving at home.
Besides using these strategies in their classrooms, teachers need to educate
themselves. MacCann (1993) notes that stereotyping is not always obvious to
people surrounded by mainstream culture. Numerous guidelines have been prepared
to aid in the selection of materials that work against stereotypes (for example,
see Slapin and Seale ).
PRACTICES TO AVOID
AVOID USING OVER-GENERALIZED BOOKS,
curriculum guides, and lesson plans; and teaching kits with a "Native American" theme. Although the goal of these materials is to teach about other cultures in
positive ways, most of the materials group Native Americans too broadly. When
seeking out materials, look for those which focus on a single tribe.
AVOID THE "TOURIST CURRICULUM" as described by Derman-Sparks. This kind of
curriculum teaches predominantly through celebrations and seasonal holidays, and
through traditional food and artifacts. It teaches in isolated units rather than
in an integrated way and emphasizes exotic differences, focusing on specific
events rather than on daily life.
AVOID PRESENTING SACRED ACTIVITIES IN TRIVIAL WAYS. In early childhood
classrooms, for example, a popular activity involves children in making
headbands with feathers, even though feathers are highly religious articles for
some tribes. By way of example, consider how a devout Catholic might feel about
children making a chalice out of paper cups and glitter.
Much remains to be done to counter stereotypes of Native
Americans learned by young children in our society. Teachers must provide
accurate instruction not only about history but also about the contemporary
lives of Native Americans.
Debbie Reese is a Pueblo Indian who studies and works in the field of early
Derman-Sparks, Louise. (1989). ANTI-BIAS
CURRICULUM: TOOLS FOR EMPOWERING YOUNG CHILDREN. Washington, DC: National
Association for the Education of Young Children. ED 305 135.
Emberton, S. (1994). Do Your Cultural Homework. Editorial. NATIONAL CENTER
FOR FAMILY LITERACY NEWSLETTER 6:(3, Fall): 5-6.
Grant, Agnes, and LaVina Gillespie. (1992). USING LITERATURE BY AMERICAN INDIANS AND ALASKA NATIVES IN SECONDARY SCHOOLS. ERIC Digest. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education andSmall Schools. ED 348 201.
Harris, V. (1993). From the Margin to the Center of Curricula: Multicultural
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Katz, L.G., and S.C. Chard. (1989). ENGAGING CHILDREN'S MINDS: THE PROJECT
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McCann, D. (1993). Native Americans in Books for the Young. In V. Harris,
(Ed.), TEACHING MULTICULTURAL LITERATURE IN GRADES K-8. Norwood, MA: Christopher
Slapin, Beverly, and Doris Seale. (1992). THROUGH INDIAN EYES: THE NATIVE
EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers. ED 344
Stutzman, Esther. (1993). AMERICAN INDIAN STEREOTYPES: THE TRUTH BEHIND THE
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