Native Americans

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

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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 ( Penguin ISBN 0140505601. Paperback.), Paul Goble's Buffalo Woman (Bradbury ISBN 0027377202. Library Binding.), The Gift of the Sacred Dog (Macmillan ISBN 0020432801. Paperback.) and Girl Who Loved Wild Horses (Bradbury ISBN 0027365700. Hardcover.), Byrd Baylor's The Desert Is Theirs ( Macmillan ISBN 0689711050. Paperback.), Hawk I'm Your Brother (Macmillan ISBN 0689711026. Paperback.) and When Clay Sings (Macmillan ISBN 0689711069. Paperback.) Bill Martin, Jr's Knots on a Counting Rope (Holt ISBN 0805005714. Library Binding.), Charles Blood's The Goat in the Rug (Alladin ISBN 0689714181. Paperback.), and Miska Miles' Annie and the Old One (Little ISBN 0316571172. 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.


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?


Gathering Information

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.



Get 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 (Econoclad ISBN 0785790640. Hardcover.) Russell Freedman's Indian Chiefs (Holiday ISBN 0823406253. Library Bindings.) Patricia McKissack's The Apache (Childrens ISBN 0516419250. Out of Print.), Dennis Fradin's The Cheyenne (Childrens ISBN 0516412116. Paperback.), E. Lepthien's The Choctaw (Childrens ISBN 0516012401. Library Binding.), John Hook's Sitting Bull and the Plains Indians (Watts ISBN 0531181022. Out of Print.) and R. Stein's The Story of Wounded Knee (Childrens ISBN 0516446657. Paperback.).

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 Happily May I Walk by Arlene Hirschfelder (Scribners, 1986 ISBN 0684186241. Out of Print.) as well 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:

|           |          | HOUSING      |  CLOTHING    | INDIVIDUALs | THEN / NOW  |
|           |          |              |              |             |             |


Famous Native Americans

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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 ( Penguin, 1987 ISBN 0399210164. 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?


Indian Mythology

Get out some of the books on Indian mythology such as John Bierhorst's The Girl Who Married a Ghost and Other Tales from the North American Indian (Macmillan, 1978 ISBN 0027097404. Paperback.) Gretchen Mayo's Star Tales: North American Indian Stories about the Stars (Walker, 1987 ISBN 0802766730. Paperback.) 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 such as that in John Bierhorst's In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and Ritual Orations (Farrar, 1971 ISBN 0374336407. Paperback.) 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 (Harper 1987 ISBN 0064402126. 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.

Jamake Highwater has written some wonderful books on Native American cultures. His Legend Days (Harper, 1984 ISBN 0060223030. Out of Print.) is about an Indian girl fleeing from an outbreak of smallpox who has a vision which fills her with power.

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 (Holt, 1978 0805011730. 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.


Comparing Information

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.


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