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. Derman-Sparks (1989) assertsthat 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.
Stereotypes Children See
Most young 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 Mercer Mayer'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
An 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.
When teachers 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
A number 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
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
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 1992 ).
Practices To Avoid
Avoid 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
Much 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
Reese is a Pueblo Indian who studies and works in the field of early childhood
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YOUNG CHILDREN. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education
of Young Children. ED 305 135.
S. (1994). Do Your Cultural Homework. Editorial. NATIONAL CENTER FOR FAMILY
LITERACY NEWSLETTER 6:(3, Fall): 5-6.
Agnes, and LaVina Gillespie. (1992). USING LITERATURE
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Digest. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small
Schools. ED 348 201.
V. (1993). From the Margin to the Center of Curricula: Multicultural Children's
Literature. In B. Spodek, and O.N. Saracho (Eds.), LANGUAGE AND LITERACY
IN EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION. New York: Teachers College Press. ED 370
L.G., and S.C. Chard. (1989). ENGAGING CHILDREN'S MINDS: THE PROJECT APPROACH.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
D. (1993). Native Americans in Books for the Young. In V. Harris, (Ed.),
TEACHING MULTICULTURAL LITERATURE IN GRADES K-8. Norwood, MA: Christopher
Beverly, and Doris Seale. (1992). THROUGH INDIAN EYES: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE
IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers. ED 344 211.
Esther. (1993). AMERICAN INDIAN STEREOTYPES: THE TRUTH BEHIND THE HYPE.
An Indian Education Curriculum Unit. Coos Bay, OR: Coos County Indian
Program. ED 364 396.
References identified with an ED (ERIC document) or EJ (ERIC journal)
number are cited in the ERIC database. Mostdocuments are available in
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can be ordered through EDRS: (800) 443-ERIC. Journal articles are available
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clearinghouses such as: UMI (800) 732-0616; or ISI (800) 523-1850.
publication was funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement,
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