ERIC Identifier: ED321968
Publication Date: 1990-06-00
Author: Pepper, Floy C.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Unbiased Teaching about American Indians and Alaska
Natives in Elementary Schools. ERIC Digest.
The contribution of American Indians and Alaska Natives to American
life reflects a long heritage, which includes the wide-spread use of Indian
words that name geographic places in this nation. American Indians and
Alaska Natives maintain their tribal traditions, religion, and languages.
At the same time, they strive to assimilate modern technologies. Nonetheless,
many students in American schools know comparatively little about the native
populations of their own country.
This Digest gives teachers realistic information about this growing
population. It identifies some of the common myths about American Indians
and Alaska Natives that contribute to curriculum bias. The concluding discussion
suggests activities and resources to help elementary students--and their
teachers--understand the realities of how Indians live today and how they
lived in the past.
THE ROLE OF ACCURATE INFORMATION
Bias about Indians is often the result of inaccurate information. The
realities of American Indian and Alaskan Native life are often oversimplified
and distorted. Stylized classroom accounts of Indian life reinforce the
"buckskin and feather" and the "Eskimo and igloo" stereotypes (Madison
School District, 1978). With such instruction, students are certain to
develop misguided impressions of Indians.
If the Indian population were declining, this situation would be an
"academic" problem. The Indian population, however, is growing (U.S. Bureau
of the Census, 1989). Lack of knowledge about American Indians and Alaska
Natives among the future generation of Americans will not serve the nation
In textbooks, movies, and TV programs, American Indians and Alaska Natives
have been treated in ways that tend both to overlook their dignity and
to disgrace their heritage (Pepper, 1976). For example, Indians who defended
their homeland from invaders (and who today seek to preserve their languages
and cultures) have often been viewed as enemies of progress. In the context
of history, they have been viewed as barriers to the settlement of the
frontier by white people. In the present, they have been viewed as a "social
problem," a drain on national resources. Teachers, in short, can be the
victims of the instructional materials they count on.
TEACHERS' DECISIONS AND CURRICULUM
Teachers make many key instructional decisions every day, but few are
consciously aware of the processes by which they make decisions (Manley-Casimir
& Wassermann, 1989). Decisions often rest on personal experiences with
unfamiliar cultures and ethnic groups' experiences that are often too limited
to serve the goal of unbiased instruction. Only in recent years have Indian
people themselves recognized their right to insist upon accurate and unbiased
accounts of their own history and existence (National Education Association,
1983). With this recognition, however, more educators are realizing that
all children must learn accurate information about historic and contemporary
American Indian and Alaskan Native people.
At the same time, educators have traditionally worried over curriculum
materials that reflect a lack of interest in and understanding of American
Indian and Alaskan Native cultures and history. Many educators, Indians
as well as others, have given much effort to develop classroom materials;
stereotyping is less common than it once was. Omission, distortion, and
ethnocentrism are, however, still common (Council on Interracial Books
for Children, 1977; Larsen, 1987).
The following information should help teachers challenge the myths,
distortions, stereotypes, and racist information that have been common
fare in most textbooks and curriculum.
MYTHS AND INFORMATION TO DISPEL THEM
Myths about Indians are commonplace. Myths occur, for example, in history,
law, sociology, and economics. They are spread through "innocent" disciplines,
such as folklore. Brief examples follow:
MYTH: American Indians and Alaska Natives are a similar group of people
who share a common language and culture and live together in similar places.
FACT: The United States government recognizes more than 300 American
Indian tribes. Each has its own particular history, value system, government,
language, and social ties that bind it together as a distinct people.
MYTH: All American Indians and Alaskan Natives live on reservations.
FACT: Nationwide, about 50 percent of the Indian population is classified
as urban. Rural Indians are those who choose to live in nonmetropolitan
areas, on or off reservations. In 1980 only 25 percent of American Indians
lived on reservations (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1989).
MYTH: American Indians and Alaska Natives receive checks from the government
just because they are Indian.
FACT: Funds received from the government are earnings from Indian lands
or other Indian resources. Education, health services, and other benefits
are provided in treaties made with the United States government. These
benefits are payments for American Indian and Alaskan Native lands.
MYTH: The existing legal status of American Indians, their people, and
their governments is the product of accepted principles of international
law and equity.
FACT: The "superior" right of European immigrants is based on the racist
notion that Native peoples are savages. This myth, perhaps the most damaging
of all, serves to excuse injustices done to Native peoples.
MYTH: Indians are a defeated people.
FACT: Courts have defined Indians as a "defeated" people. Most Indian
tribal groups were not, in fact, defeated through armed combat. In most
cases, the relationship with the federal government resulted from approximately
400 treaties signed with the United States government prior to 1871. The
terms of these treaties remain in effect today.
MYTH: The "Allotment Act" (the Dawes Act of 1887) was passed to civilize
American Indians by making them private property owners.
FACT: The Act was supposed to change Indians into European-type farmers.
Private ownership, however, was contrary to the traditional Indian concept
of shared ownership. Quite often, the land given to Indians was not suited
to farming. Indians received no training, no equipment, and no supplies
with which to take up the unfamiliar occupation. "Surplus" Indian lands
(often of better quality) were sold to settlers.
MYTH: Thanksgiving is a day of rejoicing that marks the advent of a
mutually beneficial relationship between European settlers and Native peoples
(see Ramsey, 1979).
FACT: The "First Thanksgiving" stories were actually created in the
1890s and early 1900s to promote the "melting pot" theory of social progress
(Larsen, 1987). They are substantially inaccurate (Valdes, 1986). Today,
the ethnocentric image of Thanksgiving is reinforced extensively in the
media, by religious groups, and other social institutions.
This final example illustrates how teachers can--unwittingly--bring
half-truths to the classroom. Actually, the "First American Thanksgiving"
is an Indian tradition. It was probably first celebrated many thousands
of years ago. Some Indian legends and traditions taught that the land and
all things of nature must be respected and protected from overuse. Food
was ritually respected in ceremonies that included prayers and the giving
of thanks in honor of plants and animals.
Thanksgiving, the American holiday, has always been a time of people
coming together; so thanks have long been offered for the gift of fellowship
among us all. Teachers have an important opportunity to present Thanksgiving
as a time for appreciating American Indians in an unbiased perspective--as
they really were and are.
WHAT TEACHERS CAN DO
Teachers, of course, can begin by presenting the facts to dispel myths.
Many resources are available to help teachers conduct a "bubble-popping
session" (see the annotated bibliography).
A good way to start might be to teach first about Indians, using real-life
issues on the local level. Then, instruction can expand to include the
state, regional, and national contexts. Controversial issues should definitely
be discussed. These issues include, for example, fishing rights, land claims,
trust responsibility, education and health issues, and drug and alcohol
abuse and recovery. When instruction is limited only to history and the
study of artifacts, children get the impression that American Indians and
Alaska Natives have disappeared from the world. They fail to learn that
American Indians and Alaska Natives--like they themselves--are "real-time"
beings. Historical information is important and necessary, but teachers
can simply reverse the usual instructional sequence by treating present-day
As part of the instruction, teachers can invite present-day Indian professionals
to talk of current issues. Later they can invite local Indian elders to
teach of their history. Activities such as mock treaties, in which issues
and problems are examined, can inform and motivate students. Moreover,
extending such activities can get students involved in their own "Roots"-style
histories, perhaps based on the REACH Program (see annotated bibliography).
Problems with bias are indeed widespread. A curriculum based on a factual
approach, however, will respect Indians as a people and can foster understanding
and acceptance in many ways.
Council on Interracial Books for Children. (1977). Stereotypes, distortions
and omissions in U.S. history books. NY: Council on Interracial Books for
Children, Racism and Sexism Resource Center for Educators. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 135 905)
Larsen, C. (1986). Introduction. In C. Ross, W. Burton, & W. Bill,
Teaching about Thanksgiving (pp. 1-8). Olympia, WA: Superintendent of Public
Instruction. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 283 660)
Madison Metropolitan School District. (1978). Guidelines for the development
of units on Native Americans. Madison, WI: Madison Metropolitan School
District, Department of Human Relations.
Manley-Casimir, M., & Wassermann, S. (1989). The teacher as a decision-maker.
Childhood Education (Annual Theme Issue), 65(4), 288-293.
National Education Association. (1983). American Indian/Alaskan Native
Education: Quality in the Classroom. Washington, DC: National Education
Association. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 250 137)
Pepper, F. (1976). Teaching the American Indian child in mainstream
settings. In R. Jones (Ed.), Mainstreaming and the minority child (pp.
133-158). Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.
Ramsey, P. (1979). Beyond "Ten Little Indians" and turkeys: Alternative
approaches to Thanksgiving. Young Children, 34(6), 28-32, 49-52.
Stedman, R. (1982). Shadows of the Indian: Stereotypes of American culture,
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.
Valdes, J. (1986). Culture-bound: Bridging the cultural gap in language
teaching. NY: Cambridge University Press.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (1989). We, the first Americans. Washington,
DC: Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.
California State Department of Education. (1990). Handbook of Indian
education. Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Education.
American Indian Education Office, 721 Capitol Mall, P.O. Box 944272,
Sacramento CA, 94244-2720. Update to the 1982 edition. Has an excellent
section on the values, attitudes, and behaviors of American Indians.
American Indian Institute. (1989). American Indian cultural lessons.
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma. 555 Constitution Ave., Norman, OK 73037.
A 300-page book of lessons in all subject areas for students from preschool
through high school.
REACH Center. (1987). Project REACH: Respecting our Ethnic and Cultural
Heritage. Arlington, WA: REACH Center. 239 North McLeod, Arlington, Washington
98223. Excellent training program and guide for multicultural studies that
reflect American Indian, Asian, Black, and Mexican American experiences.
Slapin, B., & Seale, D. (Eds.). (1989). Books without bias: Through
Indian eyes. Berkeley, CA: Oyate. 2702 Matthews Street, Berkeley, CA 94702.
A 450-page collection of poems, stories, and articles for unbiased reading
and instruction. Contains reviews of 110 children's books and a variety
of other resources.