Young Children about Native Americans.
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.
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
A number of positive strategies can be used in
classrooms, regardless of whether Native American children are members of
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
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 use them.
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 (Stutzman, 1993).
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
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.
INTRODUCING THE TOPIC OF NATIVE AMERICANS ON COLUMBUS DAY
OR AT THANKSGIVING. Doing so perpetuates the idea that Native Americans do
not exist in the present.
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 childhood education.
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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,
Grant, Agnes, and LaVina Gillespie. (1992).
BY AMERICAN INDIANS AND ALASKA NATIVES IN
SECONDARY SCHOOLS. ERIC
Digest. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Rural Education and
Small Schools. ED 348 201.
Harris, V. (1993). From the Margin to the
Center of Curricula: Multicultural Children's Literature. In B. Spodek,
and O.N. Saracho (Eds.), LANGUAGE AND LITERACY IN EARLY CHILDHOOD
EDUCATION. New York: Teachers College Press. ED 370 698.
Katz, L.G., and S.C. Chard. (1989).
ENGAGING CHILDREN'S MINDS: THE PROJECT APPROACH. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
McCann, D. (1993). Native Americans in
Books for the Young. In V. Harris, (Ed.), TEACHING MULTICULTURAL
LITERATURE IN GRADES K-8. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon Publishers.
Slapin, Beverly, and Doris Seale. (1992).
THROUGH INDIAN EYES: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN.
Philadelphia: New Society Publishers. ED 344 211.
Stutzman, Esther. (1993). AMERICAN INDIAN
STEREOTYPES: THE TRUTH BEHIND THE HYPE. An Indian Education Curriculum
Unit. Coos Bay, OR: Coos County Indian Education Coordination Program. ED
Reprinted with permission from ERIC Digest.