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Getting Ready to Teach Young Children About Native Americans

Originally published:

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Indigenous People’s Day? Native American Heritage Month? You may be wondering how you can help children learn about Native Americans.

This blog post offers some suggestions for preschool teachers. But first, I invite you to think back. What were you were taught in school about Native Americans? What did you see in books and movies?

Experts who study educational materials and popular culture find a lot of misinformation about Native Americans. For example, there’s a common idea that all Native people have somehow disappeared. There are also stereotypes: “All Indians have straight, black hair, and dress in leather and feathers.”

It’s not easy to sort out what’s real and authentic in all those images. Here are some books that can give you a head start. I suggest reading at least one before you start teaching about Native Americans.

  • Do All Indians Live in Tipis? Questions and Answers from the National Museum of the American Indian, Second Edition by the National Museum of the American Indian staff
  • “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker
  • Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask (Young Reader’s Edition) by Anton Treuer

Use correct terms

  • “Tribe” and “nation” are both acceptable when talking about groups of Native Americans. Many people prefer “nation.” It acknowledges that, since long before the United States existed, the widely diverse Native groups had governments and made trade agreements and treaties with each other, just as other nations have always done around the world.
  • The U.S. government officially recognizes more than 560 American Indian tribes or nations, and keeps a complete up-to-date list online.  Getting federal recognition is a detailed process, which affirms that the tribe or nation has certain legal rights and responsibilities.
  • The terms “Native American,” “American Indian,” and “Indigenous” are all acceptable. However, most Native people prefer to identify by the tribal nation they belong to. That is, instead of saying, “Jack’s family is American Indian,” you might say, “Jack and his family are citizens of the Muscogee Nation.” Native nations hold the power to decide who is one of their members or citizens.
  • You’ve probably heard the term “Indian reservation.” A reservation is land reserved for a specific Native nation through a treaty with the U.S. government. Illinois has no reservations, but more than 70,000 Illinois residents claim Native ancestry. Chicago is home to a large Native population, from many tribal nations. Other places in the state have Native American residents, as well.

Build your own knowledge base

  • Find out which nations’ traditional homelands you’re standing on. Native people had thriving communities all over North America long before Europeans set foot here. Native Land Digital website is an excellent source for finding out which Native people were here first. For example, if you search their map for “Urbana, IL”, it will show that Urbana is on the homelands of the Peoria and the Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo).
  • Read some land acknowledgements developed by organizations to recognize specific tribal nation’s relationships with the land they’re on. In Illinois, land acknowledgments are likely to mention the Peoria, Kickapoo, Kaskaskia, Sauk, Menominee, or Odawa, among others. Once you have an idea of which homelands you are on, you can look for relevant materials about those Native people, past and present, to share with the children.
  • Educate yourself about Native perspectives on current events and issues. Good sources of information include Indigenous media, such as Indian Country Today, Native America Calling, or This Land.
  • Read literature for adults by Native American writers. Learn about the work of Native artists and artisans through resources such as First American Art Magazine. Listen to Native musicians, starting on the Native American Music Awards website. What do these creative individuals say and show about their experiences as Native people?
  • It’s wise to assume you have Native children and families in your classroom and community. You may not know who they are unless they tell you directly. Their names may be Reese, Mendoza, Lee, or Mason, instead of Tall Bear or Birdcreek or Littlethunder. What you teach about Native people matters a great deal to them.
  • Do some research on the tribal nations of Native families in your program. They might or might not welcome a chance to talk to you or the class. But don’t leave it to them to educate you!

Check your assumptions — and your curriculum

  • Does what you’re learning match what you heard about Native Americans in school and other places? In what ways is it different?
  • Does your curriculum talk about Native Americans only around Columbus Day and Thanksgiving? Do you notice any stereotypes and other errors?
  • Do your classroom materials reflect the fact that Native nations had — and still have — widely differing cultures and a variety of languages? For example, pictures of Native communities in the Midwest should not show the carved cedar monuments often called “totem poles.” Those were (and still are) made by carvers from Native nations on the Pacific coast of North America.
  • Do the materials and resources for children — picture books, music, visuals — in your program accurately represent the lives of Native people?
  • Keep track of what you learn, and what you unlearn. Share what you find out with other teachers, too! It’s normal to feel uncomfortable or even overwhelmed about replacing old ideas with new understandings. But children deserve to have well-informed teachers, so please don’t be discouraged!
  • Don’t be afraid to change your curriculum. Keep in mind that what you say about Native people may affect Native children differently than non-Native children. After all, the subject is their identities, their family histories. And ALL children need to see you treat Native American heritage as important and worthy of respect.

There’s much to learn, so don’t wait until October or November to start your reading and research!

Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza holds a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from University of Illinois, a master’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Illinois, and a master’s in counseling psychology from Adler University of Chicago. She served on the faculty of the early childhood teacher education program at Millikin University and worked with children and families for more than 25 years as a teacher, social worker, and counselor. She recently collaborated with Dr. Debbie Reese on a young people’s adaptation of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz). Her long-standing interest in children’s literature is reflected in her reviews of children’s books with Native content, which have appeared in A Broken Flute and on the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. Jean and her late husband, Durango, have four grown children and six grandchildren. She lives in Urbana, Illinois.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2021