Teacher's Guide

American Indian History and Heritage

"Long Walk Home" by Richard K. Yazzir, 2014.
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"Long Walk Home" by Richard K. Yazzir, 2014.

Since 1990, Congress has authorized an annual presidential proclamation that designates November as National American Indian Heritage Month to encourage all people to learn about the contributions and cultures of the Indigenous peoples of the North American continent. Such recognition, however, dates back further with state and organizational recognition of Indigenous peoples days and commemorations occurring at the turn of the twentieth century. For example,  Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian and co-founder of the Society of American Indians in 1911, organized American Indian Day beginning in 1915. More recently, Columbus Day, which is recognized on the second Monday of October, has been reclaimed in cities across the United States as Indigenous People's Day.

This Teacher's Guide will introduce you to the cultures and explore the histories of some groups within the over 5 million people who identify as American Indian in the United States, with resources designed for integration across humanities curricula and classrooms throughout the school year.

Guiding Questions

Who made up the first civilizations on the North American continent?

What role did Indigenous Americans play in the shaping of the United States?

Where and how do Indigenous Americans live today?

How have the languages, culture, and arts of Indigenous Americans been preserved and engaged across the United States?

Teaching Indigenous Perspectives

The term “American Indian” was coined by the Columbus expedition when European explorers encountered human beings inhabiting the Antilles archipelago in 1492. When possible and if known, indigenous people should be referred to as belonging to a particular tribe. For the first century of the United States, the term “American Indian” was used to denote indigenous people, while “Native American” was a term that Anglo-Saxon Protestants claimed for themselves during waves of European and East Asian immigration during the 19th century. During the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, however, indigenous people used the title Native American to remind the government of their existence in North American territory long before the establishment of the United States as a nation. This term, still used today interchangeably with “indigenous American,” excludes other indigenous people whose tribes have historically spanned across the present-day borders of Canada and Mexico. Thus, the most encompassing adjective to describe the native ethnicity is “indigenous,” but “Native American” is appropriate when describing the indigenous people living in what is now the United States.

The Federal Register recognizes 573 separate tribal entities living in the United States today. The more populous tribes include Cherokee (729,000+), Navajo (298,000+), and Choctaw (158,000+), with the Ute (10,000+), Yakama (10,000+), and Creek (7,700+) listed among the less populous tribes. Some groups of indigenous people refer to themselves as a nation. A “people” can be used when referring to tribes that share the same language, have a similar culture, or inhabit the same geographic region of the continent.

Early localization and languages of American Indians.
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Early localization and languages of American Indians.

Some terms used in the past that referred to indigenous Americans may be confusing or offensive. For instance, “aboriginal” is now mostly associated with the indigenous people of Australia. “First Nation” is generally used to denote indigenous Canadians. “Amerindian” or “Amerind” can be found in scholarly writing, but might be confusing elsewhere. Any term that promotes colorism, exoticism, racism, or inferiority should be avoided except where found in historical context.

For additional information on the importance of culturally-respectful terms, please read the American Historian article “What We Say Matters: The Power of Words in American and Indigenous Histories.”

Preservation of Indigenous Culture

In recent years, the National Endowment for the Humanities has funded preservation projects as part of its 50 State of Preservation initiative. Grantees such as the Ohio Historical Society have been working to preserve the cultures and histories of indigenous tribes still living and thriving in the U.S. Other NEH-funded projects, such as the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society’s Augmented Reality Project, will allow modern-day humans to experience pre-Columbian life as it once existed through digital reconstruction.

Monks Mound, Cahokia site (illustration ca. 1882).
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Monks Mound, Cahokia site (illustration ca. 1882).

The Institute of American Indian Arts provides courses that feature Native American culture at their center and as Ralph Canevali writes in the 2017 NEH blog article entitled "50 States of Preservation: Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM," the “IAIA is the only multi-tribal center of higher education in the United States dedicated solely to the preservation, study, creative application, and contemporary expression of Native American art and culture. To date, nearly 4,000 students have graduated from IAIA programs.

Similarly, the Woksape Tipi Archives in South Dakota, according to Leah Weinryb Grosghal's "50 States of Preservation: Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota," include “genealogy and business records, correspondence, minutes, and reports reveal aspects of Oglala family history and the story of the Oglala Lakota people. Newspapers, many of them local and not preserved elsewhere, cover events on the Pine Ridge Reservation during the occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement.”

Although many indigenous populations in the Northeast are small today, they are still vibrant. The Tomaquag’s collections emphasize that indigenous people continue to influence their communities, making history, art, and culture, and contributing to the New England region.

Another project funded by NEH is Colonial Encounters: The Lower Potomac River Valley at Contact, 1500-1720 ADTheir website provides site maps, field photos, and images of artifacts from the Chesapeake area and can help students understand what early interactions between Native Americans and European settlers might have been like.

Chief Anne Richardson (Rappahannock) at a property signing ceremony
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Mr. Tad Davis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health, Chief Anne Richardson and Ms. Wanda Fortune of the Rappahannock Tribe at the Camden property signing ceremony in June, 2009.

Currently, the NEH is supporting projects that will increase knowledge about sites such as the Bosque Redondo Memorial, which commemorates the removal of the Navajo and Mescalero Apache people from their homelands. It is important to note that many tribes in the U.S. do not inhabit their ancestors’ land, but land that the United States has assigned to them via treaty. Students can look up documents related to treaties in the National Archives, at the University of Wisconsin Special Collections, or by using EDSITEment's Investigating Local History to access online special collection archives provided state historical societies. 

Indigenous Languages

There are hundreds of Native American languages spoken in the United States today—74 in the state of California alone. As an older generation of speakers dies out, many languages run the risk of extinction. NEH supports First Nations Development Institute’s effort to preserve Native American languages through immersion classes for children and young adults. This Map of Indigenous American Cultures and Living Histories plots out specific language and tribal groups across the United States as they exist today.

Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, 1836.
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Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, 1836.

Recently, the Miami-Illinois Digital Archive created a dictionary that translates from Miami-Illinois to English, and vice versa. The Sam Noble Museum has collected artifacts and samples of over 175 Native American languages for educational use.The University of Hawai'i also made locating information and examples of the indigenous languages of the Pacific Ocean more streamlined in their NEH-supported project Making Pacific Language Materials Discoverable

In partnership with the National Science Foundation, the NEH has funded the Documenting Endangered Languages project.  This video from the National Science Foundation demonstrates how language researchers use new technology to listen to an indigenous language sample recorded at the beginning of the 20th century. You can learn more about how students in Oklahoma have engaged in preservation work by recording songs, oral histories, and conversations about traditional activities and their collaborations with experienced linguists to analyze the recorded speech.


Place-Based Histories

To this day, Indigenous tribes cultivate spiritual and cultural relationships with their respective homelands. Ancestral ties to the land inform aspects of tribe identity and culture. While settler colonialism continues to threaten these enduring bonds to the landscape, tribes fight to sustain their community through tradition and activism. The displacement of American Indians and continued lack of recognition of rights to their homelands over time remains on the periphery of history.

National Parks

Three Indigenous people on a mountain top looking across a body of water at another mountain.
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Dorothy Waugh, “His hunting ground of yesterday, National Parks,” ca. 1930 

A critical examination of the institutional history of the National Park Service elucidates a trend of dispossession and displacement by the federal government. National Parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier provide the public with views of uninhabited nature. This interpretation ignores Indigenous tribes’ historical presence and contemporary ties with the land incorporated into the National Park Service.  

Our Environmental Humanities Teacher’s Guide examines the history of Yellowstone National Park to trace the enduring intersection between the National Park Service and Indigenous land rights. The implications of federal policies that forcibly removed Indigenous tribes from their lands and eschewing of treaty rights that would allow Native Americans to continue traditional and cultural practices have yet to be fully addressed. Furthermore, the construction of National Parks reflects United States’ imperialism over Indigenous sovereign nations. 

Burial Grounds 

Native American burial grounds are sacred sites where tribal members participate in traditional rituals and pay respects to their ancestors. The arrival of Europeans and their encroachment onto Indigenous lands during the 18th and 19th centuries disturbed and destroyed these cultural sites. In 1838, profiteers excavated and commercialized the remains of prominent members of the Adena civilization from the Grave Creek Mound in West Virginia.  

In other cases, white scholars at the turn of the 19th century attempted to erase connections between the mound complexes found in the city of Cahokia and Native American civilizations by promulgating the Myth of the Mound Builders.

Native Americans in a mythologized battle with the "Moundbuilders" atop tiers of an earthen mound.
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This cartoon perpetuates the myth of "Moundbuilders," the people thought to be responsible for the numerous and diverse earthworks.

This narrative credited the mounds to an ancient race that inhabited North America and then eventually vanished. It perpetuated the belief that the “savagery” of Indigenous tribes deemed it impossible for them to be responsible for the construction of a landscape that required a higher level of civilization. The Myth of the Mound Builders justified the federal government’s policies of forcibly removing Native Americans from their ancestral lands.  

In 1990, the federal government enacted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal legislation which bans the illegal trafficking of Native American remains. The Act further requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return or repatriate stolen cultural items to descendants or affiliate communities. 

Recently, protests over the construction of the Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock Indian Reservation highlight concerns over the region’s water supply and the disruption of ancient burial grounds. Similarly, reactions to the Trump administration’s decision to reduce Bears Ears National Monument by 85% underscore the interest in protecting sacred burial sites from further encroachment by government entities. 

NEH Resources 

With support from the NEH, the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center & Museum offers visitors the opportunity to learn about Indigenous children of western tribes that lived and were educated at Stewart. The experiences revealed the resilience of the students and the adversity they faced. The museum resides on the homelands of the Great Basin tribes. The Cultural Center and Museum recognizes this ancestral connection by centering Indigenous experiences and acknowledging the importance of traditional ecological knowledge. 

Indigenous Sovereignty and the Constitution

Indigenous Americans are mentioned in the Constitution of the United States three times: twice regarding population counts and once pertaining to Congress's right to regulate commerce between the nation and recognized tribes. Despite this fleeting presence in the Constitution, an enormous body of law concerning Indigenous sovereignty has been developed over the past 250 years.  

Throughout the coexistence era of Federal Indian Policy (1780's- 1820's) treaties between the U.S. and tribes were used to negotiate relations, but as land concerns increasingly influenced national politics in the early 19th century, new legislation like the Indian Removal Act was passed, asserting federal dominance over Indigenous rights to self-determination. Although these actions were found to be unconstitutional through U.S. Supreme Court cases like Worcester vs. Georgia, Indigenous nations were forcibly removed from ancestral lands.  

Today, the United States pursues a policy of cooperation with and self-determination by Indigenous tribes. Landmark cases like United States vs Mitchell (1983) confirmed that the United States has an obligation to uphold the terms of the treaties it has signed with Indigenous tribes, known as the Trust Responsibility . As a result of the articulation of the Trust Responsibility, the federal government is required to support the continued existence of all federally recognized tribes through economic and social partnerships with the tribes.  

Additionally, new scholarship into the founders’ influences as they drafted the Constitution has revealed that many of the ideas that form the cornerstones of the American government may have their origins in Indigenous principles of government. Benjamin Franklin was responsible for negotiating treaties with the Iroquois Confederacy, remarked in 1751 that the Six Nations should serve as a model for the “ten or a Dozen English Colonies […]” working together. During the Constitutional Convention, John Adams suggested that the framers should study “the ancient Germans and modern Indians” because of their well devised separation of powers within their governments. These influences came full circle as, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Indigenous nations created their own constitutions, many of which were modeled after the U.S. Constitution. 

Classroom Lessons and Resources

Hopi: Language of Place 

The Hopi Tribe, a sovereign nation inhabiting over 1.5 million acres in northeastern Arizona, has a rich connection with the environment that pervades their culture and language. The reverence the Hopi have for corn cultivation is apparent in their art, poetry, songs, and dance celebrations.

Language of Place: Hopi Place Names, Poetry, Traditional Dance and Song, is a three-lesson ELA curriculum unit, which guides students’ exploration of Hopi language forms in order to help them to understand the Hopi’s centuries-old relationship with the land and the process of growing corn.

  • Lesson 1 uncovers the Hopi homeland through maps and place names. Students examine regional place names of their own home communities and create personal maps;
  • Lesson 2 involves a close study of contemporary Hopi poet, Ramson Lomatewama. Students analyze how Lomatewama’s uses figurative language to describe his intimate relationship with the land;
  • Lesson 3 pursues corn as a symbol manifested in Hopi song and traditional dances. Students analyze examples of these in order to expand their cultural awareness.


The foundation of a 21st-century American community is shared respect among individuals who come from different backgrounds, places, and experiences. Native Americans take that concept even further by valuing all the inhabitants of the earth and sky—animal, vegetable, mineral, and spirit. As first inhabitants of the United States, they model inclusiveness and diversity.

Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation, reminds us to pay attention to who we are and how we are connected to the world around us in her poem and the accompanying lesson for “Remember.” The companion lesson plan from EDSITEment’s and the Academy of American Poets’ Incredible Bridges project provides activities to use with students before, during, and after reading the poem.

As additional teaching resources, the Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan's "Trail of Tears: Our Removal" imagines her ancestors' feelings of displacement as they were moved onto reservations in the American West. Emphasizing the onomatopoeic pleasure of the Diné word for mud (tł’ish), Naaneesht’ézhi Tábaahí (Navajo) author Orlando White's poem "Muddy" is perfect for teaching sound devices in poetry. 

History & Culture

The following section is organized by grade level and includes lessons and resources for history and social studies, literature and language arts, and arts and culture classrooms. 

Grades K-5

Anishinabe/Ojibwe/Chippewa: Culture of an Indian Nation: While this lesson focuses on the history and culture of the Anishinabe/Ojibwe people, you can adapt the activities to a Native American tribe that has played an historical or contemporary role in your school's region or community.

Images of the New World: In the absence of photography, Europeans brought back paintings to their home countries to share Native American customs and culture. Students will analyze similar depictions of the New World for accuracy.

Native American Cultures across the U.S.: This lesson teaches students about the First Americans in an accurate historical context while emphasizing their continuing presence and influence within the United States.

Grades 6-8

Not “Indians”, Many Tribes: Native American Diversity: In this unit, students will heighten their awareness of Native American diversity as they learn about three vastly different Native groups in a game-like activity using archival documents such as vintage photographs, traditional stories, photos of artifacts, and recipes.

Mission US: A Cheyenne Odyssey: It's 1866. You are Little Fox, a Northern Cheyenne boy. Can you help your people survive life on the plains?

Grades 9-12 and AP

Breaking Barriers: Race, Gender, and the U.S. Military: This EDSITEment and Smithsonian Learning Lab collection includes resources on teaching about the involvement of American Indians during the American Revolutionary War and questions to consider when investigating their continued involvement in the military through the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Empire & Identity in the American Colonies: In this lesson students will examine the various visions of three active agents in the creation and management of Great Britain’s empire in North America – British colonial leaders and administrators, North American British colonists, and Native Americans.

Native Americans and the American Revolution: In this lesson, students will analyze maps, treaties, congressional records, firsthand accounts, and correspondence to determine the different roles assumed by Native Americans in the American Revolution and understand why the various groups formed the alliances they did.

Imagined Nations: Depictions of American Indians: This Backstory podcast looks at the representations and misrepresentations of American Indians across U.S. history. Backstory is a NEH funded program. 

Additional Resources

There are many excellent educational resources on all aspects of American Indian life provided by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Knowledge feature, and Scholastic’s Native American Heritage lesson plans. Both the National Park Service and National Public Radio feature podcasts that deal with national landmarks of importance and current issues in American Indian communities, respectively. In "Alaska Sojourn," a feature of the Humanities magazine, students can learn more about how indigenous communities live in contemporary Alaska, the 49th U.S. state.

Native American History across the Curriculum

American Literature: Learn how American Indians contributed to whaling in Beyond Moby Dick: Native American Whalemen in the 19th Century, and important part of New England's economy.  

Geography, Social Studies: You can search for territories, languages, and treaties all across North America in this comprehensive map with links to additional sources of information for many tribes and language groups. 

Law and Government: Learn how indigenous groups can maintain intellectual property rights over their cultural works at Local Context, an NEH-funded project. 

Oral History: Lesson plans introducing students to oral histories are only one feature of the rich trove of ideas in this collection written by alumni of the NEH Summer Institute Teaching Native American Histories

Reference Websites