Native American Cultures Across the U.S.

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.

Guiding Questions

How are American Indians represented in today's society?

What objects and practices do we associate with Indian culture?

What are some actual customs and traditions of specific Native American groups?

What are some cultural traditions and customs that have changed over the centuries?

Which ones have continued into the present?

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast how American Indians are represented in today's society with their actual customs, traditions, and way of life

Understand that Native Americans are made up of diverse peoples and cultures

Identify the names of specific native North American tribes

Describe the historical and present-day locations, houses, clothing, food, and cultural traditions of specific tribes

Learn the geographic regions of the United States that correspond to Native American cultural bands

Name various tribes' cultural traditions and customs that have changed over the centuries as well as those that have continued into the present