children's conceptions of Native Americans often develop out of
media portrayals and classroom role playing of the events of the
First Thanksgiving. The conception of Native Americans gained
from such early exposure is both inaccurate and potentially damaging
to others. For example, a visitor to a child care center heard
a four-year-old saying, "Indians aren't people. They're all
dead." This child had already acquired an inaccurate view
of Native Americans, even though her classmates were children
of many cultures, including a Native American child.
(1989) asserts that by failing to challenge existing biases we allow
children to adopt attitudes based on inaccuracies. Her book is a
guide for developing curriculum materials that reflect cultural
diversity. This digest seeks to build on this effort by focusing
on teaching children in early childhood classrooms about Native
Americans. Note that this digest, though it uses the term "Native
American," recognizes and respects the common use of the term
"American Indian" to describe the indigenous people of
North America. While it is most accurate to use the tribal name
when speaking of a specific tribe, there is no definitive preference
for the use of "Native American" or "American Indian"
among tribes or in the general literature.
children are familiar with stereotypes of the Native American. Stereotypes
are perpetuated by television, movies, and children's literature
when they depict Native Americans negatively, as uncivilized, simple,
superstitious, blood-thirsty savages, or positively, as romanticized
heroes living in harmony with nature (Grant & Gillespie, 1992).
The Disney Company presents both images in its films for children.
For example, in the film Peter Pan, Princess Tiger Lily's father
represents the negative stereotype as he holds Wendy's brothers
hostage, while in the film Pocahontas, Pocahontas represents the
positive stereotype who respects the earth and communicates with
the trees and animals.
popular children's authors unwittingly perpetuate stereotypes. Richard
Scarry's books frequently contain illustrations of animals dressed
in buckskin and feathers, while Maurice Sendak's alphabet book includes
an alligator dressed as an Indian. Both authors present a dehumanized
image, in which anyone or anything can become Native American simply
by putting on certain clothes. Ten Little Rabbits, although beautifully
illustrated, dehumanizes Native Americans by turning them into objects
for counting. Brother Eagle, Sister Sky (Harris, 1993) contains
a speech delivered by Chief Seattle of the Squamish tribe in the
northwestern United States. However, Susan Jeffers' illustrations
are of the Plains Indians, and include fringed buckskin clothes
and teepees, rather than Squamish clothing and homes.
Accurate Picture of Native Americans in the 1990s
Native Americans make up less than one percent of the total U.S.
population but represent half the languages and cultures in the
nation. The term "Native American" includes over 500 different
groups and reflects great diversity of geographic location, language,
socioeconomic conditions, school experience, and retention of traditional
spiritual and cultural practices. However, most of the commercially
prepared teaching materials available present a generalized image
of Native American people with little or no regard for differences
that exist from tribe to tribe.
engage young children in project work, teachers should choose concrete
topics in order to enable children to draw on their own understanding.
In teaching about Native Americans, the most relevant, interactive
experience would be to have Native American children in the classroom.
Such experience makes feasible implementing anti-bias curriculum
suggestions. Teachers may want to implement the project approach
(Katz & Chard, 1989), as it will allow children to carry on
an in-depth investigation of a culture they have direct experience
with. In these situations, teachers may prepare themselves for working
with Native American families by engaging in what Emberton (1994)
calls "cultural homework": reading current information
about the families' tribe, tribal history, and traditional recreational
and spiritual activities; and learning the correct pronunciation
of personal names.
of positive strategies can be used in classrooms, regardless of
whether Native American children are members of the class.
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.
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, 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 overgeneralized stereotypes.
and use books that show contemporary children of all colors
engaged in their usual, daily activities playing basketball,
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.
posters that show Native American children in contemporary
contexts, especially when teaching younger elementary children.
When selecting historical posters for use with older children,
make certain that the posters are culturally authentic and
that you know enough about the tribe depicted to share authentic
information with your students.
"persona" dolls (dolls with different skin colors)
in the dramatic play area of the classroom on a daily basis.
Dress them in the same clothing (t-shirts, jeans) children
in the United States typically wear and bring out special
clothing (for example, manta, shawl, moccasins, turquoise
jewelry for Pueblo girls) for dolls only on special days.
ethnic foods but be careful not to imply that all members
of a particular group eat a specific food.
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.
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 (Stutzman, 1993).
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.
using these strategies in their classrooms, teachers need to educate
themselves. MacCann (1993) notes that stereotyping is not always
obvious to people surrounded by mainstream culture. Numerous guidelines
have been prepared to aid in the selection of materials that work
against stereotypes (for example, see Slapin and Seale ).
using over-generalized books, curriculum guides, and lesson plans;
and teaching kits with a "Native American" theme. Although
the goal of these materials is to teach about other cultures in
positive ways, most of the materials group Native Americans too
broadly. When seeking out materials, look for those which focus
on a single tribe.
the "tourist curriculum" as described by Derman- Sparks.
This kind of curriculum teaches predominantly through celebrations
and seasonal holidays, and through traditional food and artifacts.
It teaches in isolated units rather than in an integrated way and
emphasizes exotic differences, focusing on specific events rather
than on daily life.
presenting sacred activities in trivial ways. In early childhood
classrooms, for example, a popular activity involves children in
making headbands with feathers, even though feathers are highly
religious articles for some tribes. By way of example, consider
how a devout Catholic might feel about children making a chalice
out of paper cups and glitter.
introducing the topic of Native Americans on Columbus Day or at
Thanksgiving. Doing so perpetuates the idea that Native Americans
do not exist in the present.
remains to be done to counter stereotypes of Native Americans learned
by young children in our society. Teachers must provide accurate
instruction not only about history but also about the contemporary
lives of Native Americans.
Debbie Reese is a Pueblo Indian who studies and works in the field
of early childhood education.
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This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational
Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. The opinions
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions
or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.