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Tips for Choosing Culturally Appropriate Books & Resources About Native Americans

By: Dr. Cathy Gutierrez-Gomez (2010)

As an educator, perhaps you have looked for classroom materials related to Native Americans and wondered how to know which materials were accurate and appropriate. Or perhaps you have wanted to look for the best materials you could use with your students, but didn't know where to begin. Here are some guidelines for evaluating materials that you find, as well as some new ways to think about incorporating these ideas into the classroom!

Remember: Look beyond November

Remember to look for ways to incorporate these materials — as well as discussion about Native Americans tribes and cultures — into your curriculum throughout the year!

You can read more about many of these ideas and resources at American Indians in Children's Literature, Debbie Reese's must-read blog. Dr. Reese is from Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico, and currently teaches in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's American Indian Studies program. Her blog provides a wealth of suggestions and discussions that will help guide your preparation.

Plan ahead

It's important to be well-informed about Native American tribes in order to teach effectively. Doing some extra preparation can make a significant difference when teaching about Native Americans, especially if you feel uncertain about the information you will be presenting (e.g. resources, materials, books, activities). Not only will you be more likely to find quality resources, you will be able to analyze and compare different kinds of resources for your classroom. Here are some questions to guide you as you begin.

Setting realistic goals

  • What do you want to study? Why?
  • What do you want to accomplish?
  • What are the desired outcomes for students?

Getting ready to research

  • What do you know?
  • What do you need to find out?
  • What resources are available? (local community members, public library, websites, etc.)
  • Are there ways these lessons into different subject areas? (Social studies, science, language arts, etc.)
  • Are there themes or resources that can be included in the curriculum throughout the year?

Considering the students' perspective

  • What do your students already know?
  • Are there Native American students in your class?
  • If so, do your lessons reflect and respect their experiences?
  • Are there stereotypes or misinformation that needs to be addressed?

Strategies

Debbie Reese suggests the following tips as you plan your lessons:

  • 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, or 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 over-generalized stereotypes.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Locate and use books that show contemporary children of all colors engaged in their usual, daily activities. This might include playing basketball and 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 (Reese, 1996).

Choose children's books and activities with care

American Indian or Native American?

Debbie: "There is no agreement among Native peoples. Both are used. It is best to be specific. Example: Instead of 'Debbie Reese, a Native American,' say 'Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman.'

The depictions of Native Americans vary greatly throughout children's literature, and it's important to note that even well-intentioned authors and illustrators may depict Native Americans inaccurately or in ways that perpetuate stereotypes that we are trying to move away from. Check your books carefully, and make a point to look for titles from Native American authors and illustrators.

Here are some guidelines as you select books and activities for the classroom about Indigenous people.

Choosing Children's Books & Activities
About Native Americans

What to look for

What to avoid

Authenticity: Accurate and respectful information & images about tribes, customs, and people

Inaccurate or misleading information: Images or stories that mix different tribes' customs together or lack historical basis

Indigenous people of yesterday & today: A balance of historic and modern depictions with real life events and daily activities

Stereotypes: The wild Hollywood Indian; stories where children (or animals) "play Indian"; stories about children dressing up as Indians for Halloween or Thanksgiving

Diversity: Books that reflect the diversity of North America's many different tribes

The generic "Indian": Books, worksheets, or coloring pages about "the Indian" that provide little or no context or detail

Respectful language: Language that conveys respect for Native Americans and their traditions

Loaded language: Expressions such as "Sit Indian style," "Walk in Indian file," "Bunch of wild Indians"; songs such as "10 Little Indians"

Positive images: Native American role models, from Jim Thorpe to the young female lawyer in Jingle Dancer Negative images: Native American characters who are sneaky, violent, or participating in stereopytical activities such as dancing around a fire. Learn more from Images of Indians in Children's Books.
Relevance: Books and meaningful activities connected to an educational context, such as local Native Americans in the community or a particular tribe or custom Isolated activities: Making a headpiece, a drum, or Indian outfit without any connection to a particular context

Guiding questions

Debbie offers the following criteria in her October 16, 2010 blog post:

  • Does the author/illustrator specify a tribal nation?
  • What is the time period?
  • Is the history accurate?
  • How does the author/illustrator present gender?
  • Does the author's word choice indicate bias against Native peoples?

Examples

Here are some examples of books that offer authentic and respectful depictions:

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith
This story about a young girl who wishes to follow in her grandmother's footsteps presents a respectful and authentic representation of modern family relationships and roles of Native American women.

Pueblo Boy by Marcia Keegan
Get to know Timmy and his life at San Ildefonso Pueblo. Timmy plays Little League baseball and uses computers at school, but he also participates in the Pueblo Corn Dance and other traditions of his clan. This depiction provides young readers with a look at the life of a modern Native American child going about his daily activities.

Powwow's Coming by Linda Boyden
This book respectfully represents the rich powwow tradition through poetry and paper collage.

Jim Thorpe: The Legend Remembered by Rosemary Updyke
The books presents the story of Jim Thorpe, the son of a Caucasian American father and Native American (Sac and Fox) mother.

For more recommendations, take a look at Debbie's website and A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale (Santee/Cree) and Beverly Slavin. This book deals with the issue of cultural appropriation in books for children, and evaluates hundreds of books for children and teenagers published from the early 1900s through 2004.

Take a new look at Thanksgiving

In November, we often still see the misguided dramatization of what some promote as "the first Thanksgiving." This is a vivid example of what too often becomes a stereotypical depiction of Indians (children dressed in costumes and wearing feathers) and pilgrims (children in costumes) eating turkey and dressing. Debbie provides some suggestions for ways to approach Thanksgiving:

  • 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.
  • 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. (Reese 1996)

Other recommended children's books and resources for Thanksgiving can be found at the Oyate website and the Wampanaog History website.

Additional Resources

I encourage you to continue your exploration about Native Americans, as well as to learn about culturally appropriate approaches to helping students discover rich new cultures and traditions, with the following materials.

Books

Articles & Websites

Dr. Cathy Gutierrez-Gomez is an Associate Professor at The University of New Mexico's Department of Individual, Family, & Community Education. This article is based on resources she compiled for a presentation on behalf of the The Tribal & Indigenous Early Childhood Network of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in November, 2010.

References

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Reese, Debbie. "Teaching Young Children about Native Americans." May 1996. Retrieved from http://ceep.crc.uiuc.edu/eecearchive/digests/1996/reese96.html.

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