In this blog post, I’ll share some ideas for teaching about Native Americans in early childhood classrooms. My perspective comes from my experiences as a parent of Native children, as well as my professional role as an early childhood educator. I strongly suggest that you first take a look at my previous blog post, Getting Ready to Teach Young Children about Native Americans.
When our children were in school, my husband and I sometimes found we needed to ask their teachers to change what was being taught about Native Americans. Educational materials, like popular culture, were full of errors, stereotypes, and negative ideas about Native Nations and cultures.
When I taught young children, I often needed better resources to counteract misinformation they were getting from videos, movies, and books supposedly about Native people. I wish I could report that the situation has gotten better for our grandchildren and their teachers, but the problems are still there.
All children, Native American or not, need solid, accurate information about Native lives — starting in early childhood. Preschool is the time to start laying the groundwork for better understandings.
Preschool-age children may not grasp how “long ago” some events happened or exactly where they occurred. But they can understand that Native people, past and present, are essential parts of the world’s story. I urge you to weave reliable information about Native Americans into your curriculum all year long, not just November, the designated National Native American Heritage Month. Here are some ways to do that.
Use teacher materials developed to reflect Native American perspectives
Here are some places to start:
- Native Knowledge 360° is a comprehensive teacher resource, created by staff of the National Museum of the American Indian. It includes teaching ideas for preschool and up.
- The Illinois State Museum also offers some professional development about Native Americans for teachers, as well as classroom materials such as a Native Peoples of Illinois video.
- The IEL resource list Teaching and Learning about Native Americans links to reliable sources of information to help you choose and create activities that will enhance all children’s understandings of Native American lives.
Focus on the present
- Display photos and posters of present-day Native people to add to the diversity reflected in the pictures on your classroom walls. Look for images of Native scientists, performers, artists, athletes, and community leaders, as well as families. The websites of the American Indian Center of Chicago and the National Museum of the American Indian may have images you can use. Other possible sources are news stories at Indian Country Today, magazine articles in First American Art Magazine or American Indian Magazine, and picture books by Native writers and illustrators. I’ll say more about those books below.
- Share picture books by and about contemporary Native people. You might start with a book such as Mission to Space by Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington or Jingle Dancer by Muscogee author Cynthia Leitich Smith. For more recommended titles, see the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Awards, American Indians in Children’s Literature’s “Best Books” pages, and the webpage Native Children’s and Young Adults Books.
- Talk about Native Americans in the present tense (is/are) when possible. That will help children understand that Native people exist NOW. They have not “vanished” or gotten stuck in the past.
Talk about specific Native nations
- Help children see that Native people aren’t all the same, by referring to a Native person’s nation. For example, you might say, “The author of this book is Daniel Vandever. He’s Native American from the Navajo Nation.”
- Invite tribally identified Native families in your program to talk to the children about their tribal nations and family traditions, if they are willing.
Include Native perspectives throughout your curriculum
- Consider building lessons around videos made for children, about Native Americans. Examples are the PBS animated series Molly of Denali and the Illinois State Museum’s Native People of Illinois.
- Is the class investigating things people eat? They can learn about the indigenous foods that have grown on this continent for thousands of years. Look for experts to help the class find out about corn, squash, beans, wild rice, wild onions, pecans, cranberries, and persimmons. Ask your librarian to help you find cookbooks that focus on indigenous foods. Original Local by Heid E. Erdrich and The Sioux Chef by Sean Sherman are examples.
- Help the children find out about Indigenous languages by sharing words from some of those languages during their investigations of things around them. For example, what we call “corn” in English has many Indigenous names. Native families in the program might be able to tell you some relevant words. Many Native nations are working to preserve their languages, and their official websites have video and audio resources, or even apps, for language learners. One example is the Muscogee Nation’s Mvskoke Language Program.
- Play child-appropriate music by Native American performers as a regular part of music-sharing. The Native American Music Award’s (NAMA) website can be a good source of audio and videos for the children to enjoy. Be sure to preview them, as you do anything else not made specifically for children.
As teachers, we may feel we are always supposed to “have the answers.” But we need to accept that we may have a lot to learn in some areas. Information about Native Americans is likely to be one of those areas for many of us. I hope you find that the suggestions in these blog posts enable you to keep adding to what you know and sharing that with children in your classroom.