This article by Carol Otis Hurst first appeared in the Library Corner column of Teaching K-8 Magazine.
The study of Native American people and their cultures is a challenge because of the stereotypes that exist, not only in the literature, but in our own minds and in those of the children we teach. Not long ago I was working with children in a school on the east coast and told them I had just come from working with Indian children in North Dakota. They were sure I was telling another story since, they said, "There aren't any more Indians. We killed them all." Hard to believe such things in today's world of television and world wide communication, but I'm sure these children were not unique in their ignorance. Many studies of Indians leave students convinced that all Indians lived in tepees then and still do or that they were all wiped out, not that our ancestors didn't try.
Get out all the Indian paraphernalia you can find: the models, the novels, the picture books, the maps, the reference materials, the clothing, the handwork. Make a bulletin board entitled: "Learning about the First Americans." Put photographs and prints of Native Americans today and yesterday on the bulletin board. Later, as the various groups get their research questions formulated, put the questions on and around the bulletin board and display areas. Leave another bulletin board blank except for the title statement, "Did You Know That...." As the children find interesting facts in their research, they can print the fact on some appropriately decorated sentence strip and place it on the bulletin board.
Picture Book Starters
Start with a picture book at each grade level. Challenge yourself to use a different one with each group, designed to help focus their thinking on Native Americans. Some of my suggestions: Olaf Baker's Where the Buffaloes Begin (Paperback.), Paul Goble's Buffalo Woman (Library Binding.), The Gift of the Sacred Dog (Paperback.) and Girl Who Loved Wild Horses (Hardcover.), Byrd Baylor's The Desert Is Theirs (Paperback.), Hawk I'm Your Brother (Paperback.) and When Clay Sings (Paperback.) Bill Martin, Jr's Knots on a Counting Rope (Library Binding.), Charles Blood's The Goat in the Rug (Paperback.), and Miska Miles' Annie and the Old One (Library Binding.)
Look at the art motifs as shown in these books, particularly those by Goble. Compare them to those in pictures and objects of handwork by Native Americans. Look at prints of work by Remington and decide how they portrayed the Indian.
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The Term "Native Americans"
Before we go any further, what about the name, "Native Americans." I know people who prefer that reference and others who prefer the term "Indian." Who started each name? What do the people near you prefer? What do the various tribes call themselves? The Navajo have no "v" sound in their language. What do they call themselves?
What do your kids know about America's first people? Get them listing the things they know. Write down everything they give you without comment. You'll get lots of misconceptions as well as some facts and understandings. Display their comments on newsprint or on the overhead so that all can see. Together, categorize the facts into groups. If children point out contradictions, circle the facts in question.
Make a similar listing of things the children want to know about the subject of Native Americans. Again, together with the children, organize the questions into logical groupings.
Look at your own area. What tribes lived there? Are there any of that tribe still living? What do they do? Where do they live? Make a list of the places and things in your area that have Indian names.
NonfictionGet on with the study by getting out all the good non-fiction on American Indians such as the series on the various tribes published by Chelsea House. Don't neglect other great non-fiction such as Alex Bealer's Only the Names Remain (Hardcover.) Russell Freedman's Indian Chiefs (Library Bindings.)
Have some children write to The Council for Indian Education, 517 Rimrock Rd., Billings, Montana 59107. The group publishes books and pamphlets on Native Americans by Native Americans.
Look at such books as Byrd Baylor's books listed above for a look at Indians of today to dispell prejudices and misconceptions about Native Americans.
Make charts such as the following to organize the information:
________________________________________________________________________________ | TRIBE |LOCATIONS | TRADITIONAL | TRADITIONAL | FAMOUS | POPULATION | | | | HOUSING | CLOTHING | INDIVIDUALs | THEN / NOW | |___________|__________|______________|______________|_____________|_____________| | | | | | | | |___________|__________|______________|______________|_____________|_____________|
Famous Native Americans
Children can research the lives of some famous Indians and make posters on their lives and accomplishments. Some possibles: Maria Tallchief, Jim Thorpe, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Sequoyah, Sacajawea, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Squanto, Black Hawk and Pocahontas. Speaking of the latter, don't miss Jean Fritz's Double Life of Pocahontas (Hardcover.). Look at some white people whose lives impacted on the Indians such as: Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Daniel Boone, William Bradford, Davy Crockett, George Catlin, Marcus Whitman, Peter Minuit, Jim Bridger, and Jeddediah Strong Smith. Debate such questions as: Did this person help the white settlers, the Indians, him or herself or a combination of people? Should today's Native Americans be proud of or grateful to this person? Why or why not? How did the railroad, the Civil War and the Pony Express affect the lives of Indians?
Get out some of the books on Indian mythology and compare some of their tales with those of the Greeks and Romans. Compare creation stories from Native American cultures as well as others.
Poetry and Prose by Native Americans
Also have some of the beautiful prose and poetry of Native American's. Children can copy out some of them on to paper painted to look like birch bark.
Don't neglect the longer works of fiction involving Native Americans. Some children will enjoy Jean George's The Talking Earth (Paperback.). It's the story of a young Seminole girl who is sent into the Everglades as part of a rite of passage. The stay turns into an ordeal as the intended three week vigil turns into 13 weeks.
Contrast the nonfictional Only the Names Remain, listed above, with Scott O'Dell's Sing Down the Moon, the story of the Navajo's forced Long Walk as seen through Bright Morning and her husband, Tall Boy.
A different look is given in Joyce Rockwood's Groundhog's Horse (Paperback.) When this eleven year old Cherokee boy's horse is stolen by the Creeks, he resolves to get it back and does so in spite of the lack of support from his tribe.
Compare the information gained in the fictional works with that of the non-fiction. Investigate any discrepancies.
Speaking of discrepancies, hand out copies of that first "report" you did at the beginning. Let children circle any misconceptions or inaccuracies in their first thoughts about Native Americans to see what they have learned in the past few weeks.
Related Areas of Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site
- US History and Children's Literature. Links to classroom activities, various time periods, historical fiction and nonfiction.
- Deserts through Kids Books. Literature-based Classroom Unit with activities, related books and links for grades PreK-9.
- Coyote Dreams by Susan Nunes. A Featured Book with summary, activities, related books and links.
- The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. A Featured Book with summary, activities, related books and links.
- Kokopelli's Flute by Will Hobbs. Book Review.
- Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. Featured Book with summary, activities and related links.