Credit: Image courtesy of Photographs from the Collection of the Denver Public Library
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.
—Debbie Reese, "Teaching Young Children About Native Americans"
Children's literature, movies, and other media often perpetuate generalized stereotypes, whether positive or negative, in their representations of Native American peoples. Teaching children about the First Americans in an accurate historical context while emphasizing their continuing presence and influence within the United States is important for developing a national and individual respect for the diverse American Indian peoples, and is necessary to understanding the history of this country.
By the time children in the U.S. begin school, most have heard and developed impressions of "Indians" from books, movies, or in the context of the Thanksgiving holiday. This lesson helps dispel prevailing stereotypes and generalizing cultural representations of American Indians by providing culturally-specific information about the contemporary as well as historical cultures of distinct tribes and communities within the United States. Teachers can divide the class into groups that each study a tribe from a different region, or the class can select one region to study, such as the geographical region in which the school is located.
Please note that this lesson plan alternates among the three terms, "Native American," "American Indian," and "Indian people" so as not to privilege one designation over the others. In her essay, "Teaching Young Children about Native Americans," Debbie Reese explains that she uses the term "Native American," but also "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."
The Bureau of Indian Affairs states in its "Answers to Frequently Asked Questions" : "The term, 'Native American,' came into usage in the 1960s to denote the groups served by the Bureau of Indian Affairs: American Indians and Alaska Native (Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts of Alaska). Later the term also included Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in some Federal programs. It, therefore, came into disfavor among some Indian groups. The preferred term is American Indian." The issue of designating terms is still evolving.
This lesson requires you to access web pages through EDSITEment-reviewed websites. You may share these pages with your students at individual computer stations, assign small groups to share several computers, display computer-projected images to the whole class, or print out the pages and distribute copies to the students.
You may want to review some of the following background literature on teaching about American Indians, as well as the lists of recommended fiction and non-fiction books for young children:
The following vocabulary appears in this lesson; you may want to go over these words with the students as part of the introduction or as they come up in the lesson. If possible, obtain and provide pictures of the items, or ideally, bring in examples of the actual items to display and allow students to handle them in class.
Before offering information about Native American Nations and cultural groups, introduce the terms "Indian," "Native American," and "American Indian," and ask students what they know about these terms and about the people they represent. Create two columns on the chalkboard or a piece of paper, and write down student responses in the first column. This first column shows students' preconceptions about Indian peoples; the second column will reflect information students receive through the lesson.
Have students draw two pictures: one representing an "American" and one representing an "American Indian." Line the two sets of pictures in two rows, and ask students to compare the "Americans" to the "Indians." Add their observations about the "American Indian" pictures to their initial responses on the board or paper.
After students have offered their first impressions about Native Americans, explain to the class that the words "Indian" and "Native American" refer to a diverse set of Native American tribes or nations who lived for centuries across the lands that Europeans claimed later to have "discovered," which are now called the Americas -- the Caribbean islands, Canada, the United States, Mexico, the countries of Central and South America.
Read one or more of the books from the following list of Fiction Books about Contemporary Native American People, recommended by Debbie Reese. American Indian's in Children's Literature is Reese's website that provides lists of the best in children's literature about American Indians.
Each of these books portrays Native American characters in a contemporary context in ways that challenge common stereotyping representations. After reading one or more stories, ask students to describe the characters they have heard about. Write their responses in the second column of the board or paper. Ask the class to compare their original ideas about American Indians with the portrayals offered in the book(s). Do the stories and the people represented alter their views about Indian peoples?
You might point out to your students that, through much of the 20th century, Indian peoples came under intense social and economic pressure to assimilate into mainstream American society, and as such had to make difficult choices between identifying with their native communities and finding a livelihood in the larger society. Today, by contrast, increasing numbers of Native Americans are able to participate more fully in traditional community activities, which in many locations are thriving, while at the same time attending college and obtaining jobs in non-traditional settings.
To introduce the five cultural bands of American Indian tribes and the general regions of the United States in which they live, display or print out and distribute to students copies of the History page of the First Americans website, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Native Web. This page contains a map of the United States divided into five Native American cultural bands, including Plains, Northwest, Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast. The text explains that areas in which people share similar environments and customs due to their proximity to one another are called cultural bands.
Print out and distribute to students copies of a map of the United States, available from National Geographic Education. From the Atlas page, select North America, then United States of America, and you can choose whether or not to have state borders displayed. As students acquire information about the regions of the U.S., Native American tribe names, and cultural aspects and traditions of their assigned tribe, they can fill in the information on the map by writing words and/or drawing pictures.
Depending on the reading and writing level of your class, you may choose to have students fill in the blanks on a chart or answer questions and write a paragraph describing one tribe. This activity can be done by the entire class for one tribe, or by small groups each for one of the five tribes.
The Tribes page of the First Americans website displays images of clothing, housing, and food items from the five cultural groups of Native Americans. When you place the cursor over an image, the word describing the image appears, and the object's corresponding Native American cultural band is highlighted on a small map of the U.S.
From the Five Tribes page, you can click on the name of a tribe to get information about the land, clothes, housing, and other cultural aspects of the following five tribes: Tlingit, Dinè, Lakota, Muscogee, and Iroquois. When you click on an image, it takes you to a page with information about one tribe from the indicated region. Using the information provided through each of these tribes' pages, have your students identify the traditional customs of one tribe. On their maps, students can shade in the area of the U.S. in which their tribe lives and can write the words or draw a picture describing the clothing, house, and food of their tribe. They can then complete the following written exercise:
For Kindergartners, have students fill in the blanks on the following chart available in pdf format. Students can then draw a picture to illustrate the chart information for one tribe.
Information on the Native American Tribe__________
For the following sentences, fill in the blanks:
For first and second graders, ask students to read the descriptions of the land, food, housing, and other social and cultural aspects listed for their geographical region. Students can use the information to answer the following questions and write the facts on note cards. They can use the information they record to write a paragraph about their group and draw a picture to illustrate their paragraph.
Questions about the Native American Tribe__________
Background Information About Native American Tribes from the Five Cultural Bands of the United States
(Note: Information is taken from the First Americans website, unless otherwise noted.)
Tlingit live in the American Northwest Coast that is now part of Alaska.
Dinè (Navajo) Information
Muscogee (Creek) Information
Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Information
Lakota (Sioux) Information
2 class periods