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Exploring Native Americans Across the Curriculum

Blast stereotypes with across-the-curriculum activities for students of all ages.

Stereotypes of Native Americans abound -- in movies and on TV, in literature and in history books. "Teachers must provide accurate instruction not only about history but also about the contemporary lives of Native Americans," writes Debbie Reese in Teaching Young Children About Native Americans, a 1996 ERIC Digest. Reese is a Pueblo Indian who studies and works in the field of early childhood education.

Stereotype is a difficult issue to define in any culture, especially in the Native American culture. As noted in A Line in the Sand, a Web site dedicated to the debate surrounding Native American stereotypes and other issues: "We want to be careful to note that this 'line in the sand' will not lie at the same place for everyone. ...We must recognize that not all Native American communities have had the same historical experience, either before or after 1492. For this reason, the members of these communities will have different opinions. There will be different opinions both between and within communities, just as there are in all human communities."

As much as it might vary from community to community, stereotyping is a concern to all Native Americans. "Stereotypes of Native Americans range from savages who mindlessly killed settlers and soldiers to tragic heroes and heroines who fought bravely but subsequently vanished," Reese told Education World. "I'd say that regardless of whether it is a savage or hero, illustrations of Native Americans typically show a person in feathered headressses as though all native people, from one end of the country to the other, wore the same attire. A good example of that kind of stereotyping can be found in Brother Eagle, Sister Sky. The book 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."

For a thorough discussion of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, see Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom: Possibilities and Pitfalls.

The activities and the Internet sites that are offered below are intended to help teachers present a balanced portrayal of Native Americans today -- their history, their culture, and their issues.


Geography/Map skills. Provide students with U.S. Outline Map 1, then provide the following chart, which shows the ten U.S. states with the largest Native American populations (according to the 1990 census). Invite students to find the ten states on their map and to color those states. When students have completed the assignment, invite them to talk about and make generalizations about what they see on their maps.

Ten States With the Largest Native American Populations
Arizona 203,009 North Carolina 79,825
California 236,078 Oklahoma 252,089
Michigan 56,131 South Dakota 50,501
New Mexico 134,097 Texas 64,349
New York 60,855 Washington 77,627

Reading a table. (For upper elementary grades and above.) According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Native American population is growing and will continue to grow over the next 50 years. Click here for a "Native Americans in the U.S." Teaching Master that provides students with practice in reading a table that depicts Native American census data 1980-2050. (Teaching Master Answer Key: 1. 2,300,000; 2. 2,402,000; 3. 329,000; 4. 4,371,000; 5. double.)

Read aloud. Read aloud from Native American tales from different tribes. Debbie Reese suggests the traditional stories of Joseph Bruchac and Gayle Ross. "Many mainstream retellings of Native traditional stories are distorted to fit mainstream ideas of what those stories should be," she told Education World. "They are turned into Disneylike stories. But traditional Native stories are told for a reason -- just like bible stories. An author would not retell Genesis, changing it to suit his or her idea for a plot. Yet that is exactly what happens to our stories." Some award-winning books that are very popular -- such as Turkey Girl by Penny Pollacks and Dragonfly's Tale by Kristina Rodanas -- are distorted so badly that the Zuni people do not carry them in their school libraries, added Reese.

Math. Invite students to put the following list in order (by population figure) from largest to smallest. The list shows the populations of the ten largest Native American tribes.

Apache 50,051 Iroquois 49,038
Cherokee 308,132 Lumbee 48,444
Chippewa 103,826 Navajo 219,198
Choctaw 82,299 Pueblo 52,939
Creek 43,550 Sioux 103,255

Listening. Read aloud to students The Turtle Story. This is a story the Gabrielino Indians used to tell. Those Indians once lived in the San Gabriel Valley in southern California, where earthquakes are common. They told this story to explain the cause of earthquakes and how California was made. (You also might squeeze in a little geography here. Have a U.S. map handy as you tell the story.) After reading aloud this story, ask the following questions to make a quick check of your students' listening comprehension.

  • About which state in the United States is this story written? (California)
  • Why did Great Spirit decide to make land? (because there was hardly anything in the world but water)
  • Which animal did Great Spirit decide would be able to help him make land? (turtle)
  • How many turtles did Great Spirit need to make California? (seven; the turtle and six of his brothers)
  • Why did the turtles form a line? (They formed a north-to-south line to make the shape of California; the three at the bottom of the line each moved a little to the east.)
  • What did Great Spirit put first on the turtles' backs? (straw)
  • What did Great Spirit make from clouds? (mountains)
  • Why did the turtles begin to argue? (They grew restless; they wanted to be able to move.)
  • What happened when the turtles moved? (The earth shook and cracked; an earthquake happened.)
  • What might be another good title for this story, other than "The Turtle Story?" (accept thoughtful responses)

Language/Writing. Invite students to write their own tales like the one in the previous exercise to explain

  • a natural phenomena such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods;
  • how day and night or the seasons came to be; or
  • how some animals came to look or act the way they do (for example, how the turtle got its shell, how the frog came to croak, or why coyote howls at the moon).

Reminder: See Debbie Reese's comment above about the signifance of Native stories. While this writing activity might represent the style of a traditional Native story, it cannot replicate the importance these tales held among the Native storytellers who told them.

Geography/Map skills. (For upper elementary grades and above.) For this activity, teachers will need to use their computers to look at the Map of Native American Population by County.The map shows where U.S. Native American (American Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut) people live. Then provide students with a copy of the "Where Do Native Americans Live?" Teaching Master. (Answer Key: 1. T, 2. F, 3. F, 4. T, 5. T, 6. F, 7. T, 8. F, 9. T, 10. T)

Language. The names of many Native American tribes have special meanings in the native language of the tribe or in history. Click here for a "Tribe Names and Their Meanings" Teaching Master. Match the name of each tribe to its special meaning. Students can use library sources to complete the activity. If students have Internet access, the ultimate source for this information can be found on the This Week in American Indian History Web site (scroll down the page).
Answer Key: 1. d; 2. a; 3. f; 4. j; 5. e; 6. m; 7. h; 8. g; 9. k; 10. o; 11. n; 12. i; 13. c; 14. b; 15. l.

ABC order. Following is a list of 27 Native American tribes or nations found in the United States. Invite students to put the list in ABC order. (Note: This is just a partial list of tribes. Adjust the list for difficulty according to your grade level.)

Aleut Tlingit Navajo
Apache Hopi Pima
Cherokee Ute Pequot
Seminole Shoshone Nez Perce
Kickapoo Passamaquoddy Penobscot
Wampanoag Chippewa Sioux
Choctaw Blackfeet Cheyenne
Winnebago Pueblo Seneca
Mohawk Comanche Narragansett

History. Invite individual students or pairs of students to research and report on the major cultural aspects of a Native American tribe/nation listed in the previous activity. Students can use encyclopedia and other library resources. In addition, see the list of Internet sites below that will link students to information about individual groups of Native Americans.

Art. Members of some Native American groups (especially some of those in the northwestern United States and in western Canada) built story poles (sometimes referred to as totem poles). Explore with your students the deep significance that story pole images have for Native Americans. You might ask students to identify images that might have deep significance to their own families today.

NATIVE AMERICAN CONNECTIONS ON THE INTERNET The Internet is loaded with sites related to Native Americans. Debbie Reese recommends that any use of Internet resources begin with the Web site Techniques for Evaluating American Indian Web Sites. Another site, Native American Sites, is highly recommended too; look for the drum symbol, an indicator of a site that is developed and maintained by the tribes themselves. Additional resources include the sites listed below:


Native Web
Here, you'll find categories that include arts and humanities, business, historical material, language and linguistics, law and legal issues, libraries and collections, organizations, science, and society and culture.

First Nations Histories
Click on a tribe name for some general information. Then click on the headline of the description for a more detailed look at the tribe.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World


Last updated 10/28/2016