November is Native American Heritage Month, or, as it is commonly referred to, American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.
The month is a time to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories of Native Americans and to acknowledge the important contributions they have made throughout history. NAHM provides the perfect opportunity to educate students about tribes and raise awareness of the unique challenges they have faced historically and continue to face in present day.
If you’re seeking to incorporate lessons about Native American history and heritage into your curriculum, great! However, here are some cultural considerations to make when forming your lesson plans.
Teach about injustices as they happened
United States history classes give teachers a wide array of curriculum to teach, but most classrooms begin with European settlers. From precolonial migrations to current events, the range of American history extends far beyond the past five hundred years that most textbooks teach. America is a diverse land of many cultures, dating back thousands of years to the indigenous residents of the land. When teaching about the history of the United States, the world, and geography, start by shedding light on these early inhabitants. Don’t forget that these also include indigenous populations from Alaska and Hawaii!
Most prominently, devote more than one day to teaching about the forcible removal of the Native nations enacted by the American Indian Removal Act of 1830. This act was strongly supported by European descendants in the South and Northeast but was opposed by Native tribes and the Whig Party. The Cherokee Nation worked to stop this relocation but was unsuccessful; they were eventually forcibly removed by the US government in a march to the West that later became known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands of Native Americans were displaced from their cultural homelands, and they suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their newly designated reserve. Many died before reaching their destinations or shortly after from disease. The history of these populations is at a disservice if not told in its entirety.
For secondary students, consider implementing Lies My Teacher Told Me into your curriculum, which takes a deep dive into the hard history of the United States and attempts to overturn historical assumptions that traditional textbooks get wrong. It’s a great jumping-off point for teaching Native American history, but it’s just that: a starting point to provide context for a complex history.
Other examples of topics that could be incorporated into your history curriculum include
- how indigenous Americans shaped the United States;
- the Wampanoag Indians at Thanksgiving;
- Native Americans in the American Revolution (and other American wars);
- how identity of Native Americans is tied to their sovereign nation;
- voting rights for Native Americans; and
- Pacific Northwest, Southwestern, Alaskan, and Hawaiian natives.
Photo: iStock by Getty Images / benedek
Holidays take on a different connotation
Whether or not you have students of Native American or Alaska Native decent in your class, you still must educate students on how various populations feel about American holidays. Native Americans have been speaking out against the colonialist narrative of Thanksgiving for as long as the American narrative has existed, and to ignore the feelings of indigenous peoples in a lesson plan about Thanksgiving, Columbus Day, or Independence Day devalues the experience of an entire race of people.
The traditional Thanksgiving story frames the Pilgrims as main characters, glorifies their endeavors and the holiday the narrative birthed, and forces the Wampanoag Indians into a secondary and often forgotten role. The truth is that Thanksgiving began with Native Americans and to ignore that in a lesson that puts them in the shadow of Pilgrims is a socially irresponsible way to teach this history.
Consider starting a lesson on Thanksgiving that addresses the perspectives of Native Americans. Use this enlightening article from Smithsonian magazine, “Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?” to guide a discussion about differing opinions about the holiday. Younger students might also enjoy hearing other kids their age share what the Thanksgiving holiday means to them in this USA Today article: “On Thanksgiving, Native American Students Reflect.”
Photo: iStock by Getty Images / bpperry
Incorporate Native American traditions and culture into the curriculum
Today, there are 573 federally recognized Native American nations in the United States, each with its own unique traditions, customs, and heritage. To teach Native American history in a respectful and commemorative way, you must recognize the rich variety of these Native nations and honor their diversity. Utilize the Americans exhibit from the National Museum of the American Indian to help your students understand how Native American culture and imagery is present in everyday life.
To foster critical thinking through project-based learning, students can individually choose a Native American nation to research and present to the class. Encourage students to investigate cultural traditions and customs, foods, location, tribal history (wars with other Native nations or if the nation has a treaty with the US government), spiritual beliefs, and leaders and prominent figures. Choose an essential question to guide student learning and deepen understanding, like “How did the tribal nation change over time?” or “How does spirituality guide Native American identity?”
Food is a great entry point for your younger students to begin to understand Native American culture. Instead of a long list of foods (and when talking about the Americas, that list is lengthy, with about 60 percent of the world’s foods originating in Native agriculture) explore a couple foods in depth—for example, corn. Utilize our free lesson download, “American Cuisine: How Has It Changed Over Time?” as an entry point to help your students comprehend how food has evolved from colonial times to the present.
Source: Getty Images / Robyn Beck
Teach about current events
The unique difficulties of the Native American people extends to present day. Seek out resources that give your students opportunities to understand how tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges. Encourage students to research the historically complex relationship between the US federal government and sovereign American Indian nations and the heavily publicized construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which destroyed ancestral burial grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and could potentially poison the water supply for sovereign nations. Consider using our free lesson download “Native Americans and the U.S. Government: Who Has Jurisdiction?” to begin a discussion about current events. The lesson gives a historical overview of the federal government’s relationship with tribes and also discusses current pending legal cases over land.
Another idea is to facilitate a class discussion about the controversy behind sports team names. For many years, the Washington Redskins were criticized for using the name Redskins, which is a derogatory term to describe Native American peoples and an offensive slur, for as long as they did. On July 13, 2020, the team released a press release officially announcing that its name would change to the Washington Football Club. However, high schools, colleges, and professional organizations continue to use controversial Native American–themed mascots. Students will do well to discuss why these mascots remain in schools and towns throughout the country.
Here are some additional resources to teach Native American history:
- National Congress of American Indians
- Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
- Teaching Tolerance
- National Native American Heritage Month
- National Endowment for the Humanities
- Active Classroom
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Monet Hendricks is the blog editor and social media/meme connoisseur for Social Studies School Service. Passionate about the field of education, she earned her BA from the University of Southern California before deciding to go back to get her master’s degree in educational psychology. She currently attends the graduate program at Azusa Pacific University pursuing advanced degrees in school psychology and Applied Behavior Analysis. Her favorite activities include watching documentaries on mental health and cooking adventurous vegetarian recipes.