Understanding Prejudice
Understanding Prejudice
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Teacher's Corner
Teaching About Native American Issues

Many U.S. teachers discuss Native American history and culture, especially at Thanksgiving time. Unfortunately, the portrayal of Native Americans is often stereotypical, inaccurate, or outdated. This page offers several tips on how to teach more effectively about Native Americans.

A Checklist of Dos and Don'ts

The following checklist is based in part on recommendations from the Council on Interracial Books for Children:

Do not equate Indians with "things." For example, if alphabet cards say, "A is for apple, B is for ball, .... I is for Indian," pick a different word so that Indian people are not presented as objects.

Do not speak of Native Americans exclusively in past tense. There are nearly one million Native people in the U.S. today, yet many books and videos still have titles such as How the Indians Lived.

Do not perpetuate the myth that a few Europeans defeated thousands of Indians in battle. Historians say the number killed in battle was relatively small; what really defeated Native Americans were European diseases from which they had no immunity.

Do not let children to imitate Indians with stereotypes such as one-word sentences ("Ugh," "How"), Hollywood-style grammar ("Me heep big hungry"), or gestures (e.g., war whoops and tomahawk chops).

Do not encourage children to dress up as Indians for Halloween. Even when well-intentioned, costumes involving imitation feathers, face paint, headdresses, and buckskin are disrespectful of traditional Native dress (which many Indians consider honorable or even sacred).

Do not divide Indians and non-Indians into "us" and "them." Instead, explain that Indians were the first Americans and that today Indians are American citizens with the same rights as all Americans.

Do highlight the Native American philosophy of respect for every form of life and for living in harmony with nature.

Do discuss a variety of Indian nations, such as Hopi, Lakota, and Navajo, rather than lumping all Native Americans together. Explain that each nation has its own name, language, and culture.

Do challenge TV and movie stereotypes of Native Americans. Discuss the meaning of stereotypes and help children understand that Native Americans were no more savage than others who fought to defend their homes and community.

Do understand that Native American children are not always aware of their heritage. Native children sometimes know more about "TV Indians" than about their own heritage, and they should not be singled out to provide a Native perspective or asked to recount Native history.

Other Teaching Tips and Activities

Some Notes on Language

When teaching about Native American issues, choose your words carefully. Perhaps the two words that most often give offense in the classroom are "chief" and "squaw." In traditional Indian culture, chiefs are revered individuals; Native people would never say things like "How's it going, Chief?" or "We have too many chiefs, not enough Indians."

As for the word "squaw," this term was once an Algonquin word meaning "woman," but its modern meaning is now slang for a "fat, lazy Indian woman" or for female genitalia. Teachers are best off avoiding this term altogether and simply speaking of "Native American women."

One other suggestion about language is to eliminate common phrases that invoke stereotypes, such as:

  • "You're acting like a bunch of wild Indians."
  • "Please sit Indian-style."
  • "You're behaving like an Indian giver."

Classroom Activities and Assignments

Here are some ways to help students think critically about stereotypes:

  • Ask students to write down some false stereotypes about Native Americans and/or other ethnic groups, and discuss where these stereotypes come from and why they are wrong.

  • Present information on this page in the form of a student quiz, and discuss each question topic and answer with the class.

  • Discuss reasons why stereotypes may be harmful to individuals or groups, and have students write either a true story or a make-believe story showing how this can happen.

  • Ask children to write and act out a play that illustrates how stereotypes can be unfair and hurtful.

The Most Important Ingredient

Perhaps the single most important ingredient in teaching is respect. Native Americans have been stereotyped and treated disrespectfully for so many centuries that it is sometimes hard to recognize when they are being demeaned. For example, Indian Princess and Indian Guide youth programs often promote stereotypes without realizing it.

It is therefore critical to remember that Indians are living people still carrying on past beliefs and practices in today's world. Be aware that some of your students may be of Indian ancestry, and seek to learn as much as possible about Native American issues so that your teaching is sensitive to the needs of all students.

Source Notes and Further Reading

This page is based in part on materials developed by Native Nevada Classroom, the Council on Interracial Books for Children, and Wendy Rivilis. For more on Native American issues, please visit the Reading Room. If you teach teens or adults, you might also assign students to take the Native IQ Test (an interactive 10-item knowledge quiz on Native issues).