of the American Indian
3001 Central Street
Evanston, IL 60201
Teaching Strategies for Learning and Teaching about American Indians
It is the mission of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian’s Education Task Force to help teachers educate about American Indians. We know that teachers are in a unique position to break down stereotypes. By using available resources and emphasizing the value and benefits of diversity in our communities, teachers can contribute to better education about America’s indigenous people.
We often hear this question: How should I teach about American Indians? Learning and teaching about American Indians is a challenge. Part of the reason for this is that, until recently, content about American Indians has been missing from and/or distorted in teacher-training programs and school curricula. What teachers and students know, they know from the media, and this knowledge is often static and stereotypical.
The following strategies are meant to help teachers decide what to teach and how to teach. As former teachers ourselves, we know that teachers are consummate professionals and that they will create meaningful lessons when they have guidelines to follow. Here are some strategies recommended by the Education Task Force. These strategies have been adapted from “The Educator’s Guide to Learning and Teaching about Indigenous Cultures” created by the Field Museum.
1. Allow students to explore their own cultures and the cultures of others.
- Use the same perspective/approach to analyze both cultures.
- Guide students in finding similarities and differences between their own and other cultures.
2. Don’t assume there are no Native students in your class.
- Teach that all American Indians don’t look like the stereotypical Plains Indian.
- Avoid singling out these students. Many are not acquainted with their heritage or with that of other American Indians. They should not be used as experts in the classroom.
3. Remember that American Indian tribes have similarities and differences.
- Discuss how American Indians share a similar past experience of marginalization and colonialism.
- Show that each group also has a diverse, individual history that is equally important in studying American History.
- Discuss how American Indians have a wide variety of physical features, attributes, backgrounds, and values, just like people of all cultures.
- Talk about ethnic foods and clothes, but point out that not all members of a particular cultural group eat or dress that way.
- Point out that American Indians today live in houses, apartments, and mobile homes just like other people.
4. Use books and materials that are written and illustrated by American Indians, when possible.
- Discuss the oral tradition as a viable way to pass down information.
- Use American Indian songs, poems, speeches, and writings to show indigenous linguistic skills.
- Look for good non-Indian-authored resources, as well.
- Make books and publications available that show diverse contemporary children engaged in their usual, daily activities like playing basketball, riding bikes, as well as more traditional activities.
5. Teach that American Indians are still here.
- Expose students to contemporary American Indians.
- Look for materials and teach about the continuity of American Indian societies.
- Teach that many traditions are still practiced and have great meaning today.
- Challenge the media stereotypes and discuss why they are harmful to all of us.
- Discuss your students’ own traditions that still have meaning today as a means of breaking down more stereotypes.
6. Do not divide American Indians and non-American Indians into “us” and “them”, or “our culture” and “their culture.”
- Teach about the complexity of ethnicity and identity. Show that there are many ways people see themselves, not just as “Indian” or “non-Indian.”
- Emphasize the great benefits of diversity.
- Explain and discuss how American Indians were the first people in the Americas.
Integrating Cultural Studies and Classroom Materials
7. Teach about American Indians as a regular part of American History and other subject areas.
- Use accurate materials that put history into perspective, as well as primary documents, when possible.
- Integrate cultural studies into every facet of the curriculum. Pair up with other subject area teachers to create a wide perspective about American Indians.
- Explore experiences in literature, art, science, math, and history. Students learn to understand diversity when they see it discussed in many academic areas.
8. Talk about the lives of American Indians in the classroom.
- Explore and recognize how the Americas have been, and are still inhabited by, separate nations with different names, languages, histories, beliefs, and cultures.
- Teach that there are over 500 different groups that reflect great geographic, linguistic, socio-economic, and educational diversity.
- Emphasize how American Indians today represent half the languages and cultures in the United States.
- Present materials that show respect and understanding of the sophistication and complexities of these societies, past and present.
- Incorporate materials that show American Indian women, elders, and children as important to their societies. Don’t just focus on men and/or warfare.
- Invite American Indians to your class and treat them as teachers.
9. Thoroughly research the traditions and histories of American Indians, past and present, before teaching such material in the class.
- Focus on one group and learn all you can about it. The more relevant the group is for the students, the better the understanding that they will learn from it.
- Stop the perpetuation of stereotypes by emphasizing that the group you focus on is not necessarily like any other American Indian group.
- Talk about the diaspora of American Indians caused by Europeans.
- Discuss, however, the numerous stories and historical accounts of strong resistance to colonialism. These stories are important elements in American History, and should be highlighted where possible.
10. Understand that the terminology used to describe general American Indian groups can be problematic.
- Explore how the terms “Indigenous people”, “Native people”, “American Indians”, and “Native Americans” are very broad and individuals may prefer one term over the other.
- Teach that most American Indians identify themselves as belonging to a certain, specific group, or cultural affiliation, for example, Miami, Yucatec Maya, Yaqui, Tlingit, Oglala Lakota, Taino, among other groups.
11. Choose books in which American Indians are portrayed as real human beings with strengths and weaknesses.
- Select drawings, pictures, and photographs carefully to avoid stereotypes, or to talk about them openly.
- Teach that even historical photographs present only one interpretation in a given historical moment.
- Select materials in which regional and cultural differences among American Indians are recognized and shown.
12. Avoid presenting arts, crafts, and activities that trivialize Native dress, dance, or ceremony.
- Making feather headbands, for example, is a popular activity used for younger children to represent Native North Americans. Historically, eagle feathers were worn only by certain members of the Plains cultural groups who had earned them for some accomplishment.
- Feathered headdresses were not worn as everyday clothing, but rather for special ceremonial occasions.
- Feathers are highly spiritual articles for some Native tribal groups. Realize that many songs, dances, legends, and ceremonies are also considered sacred and should not be portrayed as an activity.
The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian welcomes teachers and students as they study the first Americans, Indians.
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