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Creating positive cultural images: thoughts for teaching about American Indians.

Most children enjoy stories and school lessons about American Indians. They often find something inspirational about the lives of Chief Joseph, Crazy Horse, Geronimo and other great American Indian leaders. Although it is important to learn about these great American leaders, it is even more important for children to construct positive images of present-day Native people to prevent racial or cultural stereotypes from becoming part of their beliefs.

American Indian people are among the many different peoples and cultures that live on the American continent. While we all are much more alike than different, it is the differences that too often compel us to erect barriers of misunderstanding. Consequently, we must learn more about each other. Educators especially require knowledge of other cultures, races and ethnicities. Otherwise, they may unknowingly spread their misunderstandings as stereotypes to students.

Two decades ago, Heinrich (1977) addressed Native and non-Native interracial issues when she published a list of "what not to teach about American Indians." Its purpose was to help elementary school teachers correct common errors. Although the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force (1994) found significant change in Native education since the mid-1970s, many of Heinrich's recommendations are as relevant today as when she first proposed them. This paper will revisit those suggestions, and then encourage teachers to rethink how they portray American Indian people. The authors hope to advance classroom teachers' understanding by providing current explanations and viewpoints from the Native community.

Restructuring the Knowledge Base

* Teach children that American Indian people prefer to be identified by their nation name.

The name "Indian" was a white man's invention and still remains largely a white image, if not a stereotype. It was first used by members of Christopher Columbus's party when, upon landing in the Americas, they erroneously believed they had landed in India. Most Europeans, however, called Indian peoples "Americans" until immigrants from Europe appropriated that name (Sando, 1972). The term "Native American" also was derived from non-Natives, originally used by the United States Government to designate all Native peoples of the continent. Today, by most accounts, it includes American Indians, Alaska Natives and all Native peoples from the United States's territories and possessions - American Samoa, Baker Island, Howland Island, Guam, Jarvis Island, Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, Johnston Atoll, Midway Islands, Navassa Island, Northern Mariana Islands, Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Wake Island.

These appellations, however, do not distinguish Apache from Inuit or Samoans from Mohawks. As a result, federal dollars typically budgeted for American Indians and Alaska Natives have now been reallocated to all peoples who declare themselves to be Native American. This interpretation increased competition for federal dollars and, in some cases, reduced treatied funds for those peoples originally identified as Native Americans.

Most American Indian and Alaska Native groups have therefore moved away from calling themselves Native Americans, and instead use the names of their original nations (e.g., Navajo Nation, Menominee Nation, Seneca Nation). Most electronic databases and publications edited by Native scholars now use the term American Indian (e.g., Journal of American Indian Education, American Indian Quarterly, American Indian Culture and Research Journal) when referring to Native peoples as a collective group. Although use of "American Indian" may suggest a return to the old image, those who choose American Indian terminology believe it more clearly identifies Native people 'of America as uniquely indigenous to the continent.

* Teach children that American Indian people do not live in tribes.

Although the United States Government has used the term "tribe" as an official designation for identifying different populations of American Indian people, most Native people prefer to be recognized as belonging to a particular nation of people rather than a tribe. While "tribe" or "tribal society" may be acceptable to some Native people, others believe the words suggest primitive or nomadic peoples - a classification most modern populations would find offensive. When the term "tribe" is used in anthropology, it generally refers to a kin-based society (Winthrop, 1991). Seymour-Smith (1986) defined it as ". . . a group which possesses social institutions but not political ones" (p. 281).

A nation, on the other hand, is defined as having political organization and a differentiated administrative structure (Berndt, 1959; Winthrop, 1991). Although kin-based social units are common in most Native communities, American Indian societies today are nations that have been organized around democratic authority and political institutions: council government, chief executive officer and judiciary. Even today there are over 500 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native nations (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1992). Together, they share the commonality of representing the original peoples of the modern continent.

* Teach children that American Indian culture differs by nation and in time.

Banks (1981) described culture as a society's behavioral patterns, symbols, institutions, values and other human-related elements. While these qualities may display themselves differently among the American Indian peoples, they also change over time. If one is speaking about the Native Lakota culture, for example, a particular time period must be referenced. Before 1700, many reports placed Lakota people in Minnesota's lake and semiforested regions. By 1870, however, that same nation had relocated to the central and western Great Plains several hundred miles away. The relocation undoubtedly changed everyday life and influenced cultural elements. Furthermore, Lakota culture today reflects further variations of the same customs.

Such cultural variations can also be recognized when comparing different Native nations. The culture of the Oneida nation in the forested eastern United States was quite different, for example, from that of the Cheyenne nation on the Great Plains. Furthermore, today's Northern Cheyenne culture in Montana differs from the Southern Cheyenne culture in Oklahoma. Such differences in Native culture compel teachers to consider both time and place when teaching about American Indians. All Native peoples cannot and should not be lumped together.

* Teach children that the Pilgrim-Indian image may be false.

Although an officially declared American Indian History Month does not exist, many teachers use October or November to study American Indians as they celebrate the traditions of Thanksgiving. While these studies may be well-intentioned, too often they perpetuate stereotypes, especially when they inappropriately portray American Indians with feathers in their hair standing alongside the Pilgrims. Many Native people, in fact, think such portrayals depict them frozen in time; that is, wearing costumes from an earlier century, complete with headdress, buckskin or loincloth, war paint, and bow and arrow. These Pilgrim-Indian images not only advance a stereotype (one the American public seems most comfortable with), but also communicate a traditional message that is primarily mythical. Deloria (1988), for example, described the Pilgrim-Indian relationship this way:

One day at a conference we were singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and we came across the part that goes: "Land where our fathers died, Land of the Pilgrims' pride." Some of us broke out laughing when we realized that our fathers undoubtedly died trying to keep those Pilgrims from stealing our land. In fact, many of our fathers died because the Pilgrims killed them as witches. We didn't feel much kinship with those Pilgrims, regardless of who they did in. (p. 2)(1)

Therefore, we need to examine the images we present to children in classrooms. Are the images fictional or do they represent reality?

* Teach children that certain symbols are derogatory to American Indian people.

American Indians are often used as icons on commercial products, ranging from foods and automobiles to athletic teams. These symbols are thought, by some, to honor Native people. In a recent interview, however, one American Indian leader(2) responded to that belief in this way: ". . . thank you, but what if we don't feel honored?" (Wideman, 1999). Children must understand that representations of the bow and arrow, tomahawks, headbands, feathers, tipis and profiles in headdress and war paint are depictions of a mythical Indian from long gone eras. Native people have changed over the centuries, as have the many American immigrants who came later. It is just as demeaning to portray Native people as frozen in the past as it would be to treat America's immigrants that way. Moreover, activities associated with those images (e.g., the war dancing, tomahawk chop and appearances by "Chief Noc-a-Homa" at baseball games and other events) also denigrate the sacred rituals and social ceremonies of Native peoples. American Indians live in the present, and they ask for the same respect that other cultures, races and ethnicities desire (Beauvais, 1992). Children should be taught that it is not acceptable to use symbols or names that dishonor Native people.

* Teach children about the early Native model for democracy.

Before Europeans first arrived in North America, many Native nations had already developed systems of government that were uniquely democratic. Most scholars believe those systems provided the model for the United States's own form of democracy. The European explorers who first arrived on the North American continent were seeking freedom from divine rights of kings, centralized governments and societies that were stratified into rigid classes (Gibson, 1980). Their discovery of successful Native governments that were decentralized, self-ruling and loosely confederated provided a stimulus for establishing democratic governments across North America. Europeans paid most attention to the Iroquoian Confederacy of Nations. This unique league included the nations of Cayuga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida and Onondaga; each provided a representative at the village, nation and league levels. Although the nations remained independent with their own internal council governments, they also elected peace chiefs to sit on a central council for the confederacy (LaBonty, 1995).

Considering the current debate over the role and responsibilities of government in the United States, it only seems appropriate that school children should learn more about democracy's origins in America and its influence over the centuries on Americans. In class discussions, for example, children could contrast the electoral caucus system used by the 17th century Iroquoian Confederacy with similar caucus procedures used today to nominate candidates for the American presidency. Another class discussion might examine examples of democracy's shameful times (e.g., the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Indian Allotment Act of 1887), as well as its tendency to self-correct over time (e.g., the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968).

* Teach children about the Native legacy of world commerce.

Only recently have economists and historians begun to fairly assess American Indians' commercial contributions. Although Native peoples benefited little from their relationship with early Europeans, their contributions to commerce have been immense. Early French explorers, for example, traded with Native people for furs, which altered clothing fashion and design around the world (Gibson, 1980). American Indian peoples' greatest commercial legacy will likely be the plants they domesticated for food, drugs and building supplies. Europeans quickly learned to use these plants in everyday living, and infused them into their global commerce. Among the more common food crops were corn, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, beans, pumpkins, melons and peanuts. These crops are used widely today and some, such as corn, rank among the most important staples of all populations. Native peoples have also contributed more than 200 drug-yielding plants that are listed in the American pharmacopoeia (U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, 1995).

The commercial products listed here represent only a fraction of Native contributions to world commerce. By including these examples in lessons, children will begin to understand how the components of world trade are established, and how Native peoples have contributed to its development over many centuries. Children should understand how all nations must work together to produce a successful global community.

* Teach children about the American Indian peoples' rich cultural heritage.

Most American Indian cultures regard the earth as their mother or grandmother. They believe all life began with the earth. As Means (Wideman, 1995) pointed out:

Because she is the mother of all living beings, you are related to everything that lives - every blade of grass, every pine needle, every grain of sand. Even the rocks have life. Since you rely on all this life for your sustenance, you have to be respectful. (p. 76)

This world view arose out of a need to live in harmony with nature, not in domination over it. Such a philosophy helped temper humans' excesses against the environment. This perspective has shaped not only American Indians' cultures, but also the cultures of all indigenous peoples - the Lapps in Scandinavia, the mountain people of Switzerland, the Berbers of North Africa, the Bedouins of the Middle East, the mountain people of Taiwan, the Ainu of northern Japan and the Inuit of the Arctic (Wideman, 1995).

As natural and social environments decline, Native peoples and philosophies may provide a model for physical and spiritual healing. Children can learn respect for the self and others if classroom lessons emulate Means's definition of respect as respect for all things.

Recommendations for Children's Studies

Teachers should remember that people learn by constructing knowledge from images and models. Teachers can avoid creating stereotypes from these images if they consider how they select and present symbols in the classroom (Haukoos, Bordeaux, LeBeau & Gunhammer, 1995). Rather than choosing one all-encompassing study of American Indians and Alaska Natives, select topics that can be studied in greater depth. Not only do these studies provide children with proper and lasting information, they also dispel myths. A short list of recommended strategies or topics for in-depth study includes:

* Select one nation for in-depth study. Begin with the history of its leaders and people, but also look at the nation today. Where do the people live? How do they make a living? How is the nation's government structured? Where do children go to school? What colleges serve, the people of the nation? What family or national traditions are practiced today?

* Study the commonalities of Native people from a particular region in greater depth. Why were the Native nations of the Great Plains so mobile in past centuries? How has that mobility influenced those nations today? What factors have strongly influenced the cultures, nations and peoples of the Southwest, the Eastern Woodlands or the Great Lakes area?

* Study Native people by using children's literature rather than social studies textbooks.(3) Native peoples used stories to teach each other and their children, and now many of those stories have been published for all to enjoy. In particular, look for stories about Spider, Coyote, Deer or Badger. These animals are tricksters in most Native cultures, and these stories always provide strong social messages for children. They also offer greater understanding of cultural development among Native peoples. Do not limit your stories to these characters alone. Instead, use a wide variety of books such as Keepers of the Earth (Caduto & Bruchac, 1989), which includes stories from many Native nations, and Lakota Star Knowledge (Goodman, 1992), which includes stories from only one nation.

* Study one event from American history that had a major impact on Native people. Topical areas of interest may include: the forced removal of 125,000 men, women and children from five Native nations along the mid-Atlantic and Southeast, and their march to semiarid reservations in the Oklahoma Territory (the Trail of Tears); the Black Hawk Wars, during which Chief Black Hawk dared to resist the Indian Removal Act of 1830; President Andrew Jackson's administration, when 75 different treaties were signed and broken between 1829-1837 (Caselli, 1972); and the reduction of American Indian populations from 1,500,000 in 1769 to 250,000 by 1890 (Gibson, 1980).

* Develop an understanding of modem Native peoples by visiting a Native nation. Native nations or communities are widely dispersed throughout North America, even in large cities. Encourage families and children to visit a Native community. Select a cultural center for an initial visit. Then, select a school or community event to attend. Report on how children and parents in these communities are similar to those in your own community.


Popular culture's conceptions of American Indian people are not always correct or positive. Some of these views may be an unfortunate outgrowth of misguided education. Native educators are optimistic, however, that positive cultural images are possible through appropriate education. In fact, the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force has recommended that "a massive education and public relations effort ... be launched to dispel stereotypic images of American Indian and Alaska Native students" (Cahape & Howley, 1992, pp. 83-84). The authors hope that by examining commonly held perceptions of Native people, teachers will be encouraged to rethink how they have portrayed American Indians in their classrooms. The Native community's own views and teaching strategies described here can help teachers develop a more authentic knowledge base. By working together, Native and non-Native teachers can help children construct positive cultural images of the American Indian peoples in today's society.

1 Vine Deloria, Jr. is Yankton Dakota Sioux, and a professor and lawyer.

2 Russell Means, a Oglala Lakota Sioux and a Native leader, activist and film star.

3 Prior to the selection of children's literature with Native images, the authors recommend a review of the following report:

LaBonty, J. (1955). A demand for excellence in books for children. Journal of American Indian Education, 34(2), 1-9.


Banks, J. A. (1981). Multiethnic education: Theory and practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Beauvais, A. (1992, May/June). 'Indians' are not icons of the past. The Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, p. 21.

Berndt, R. M. (1959). The concept of 'the tribe' in the western desert of Australia. Oceania, 30, 81-107.

Caduto, M. J., & Bruchac, J. (1989). Keepers of the earth. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.

Cahape, P., & Howley, C. B. (Eds.). (1992). Indian nations at risk: Listening to the people (Contract No. RI-88-062016). Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.

Caselli, R. (1972). Historic repression and Native Americans. In J. Henry (Ed.), The American Indian reader (pp. 61-65). San Francisco: American Indian Educational Publishers.

Deloria, V., Jr. (1988). Custer died for your sins: An Indian manifesto. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Gibson, A. M. (1980). The American Indian: Prehistory to the present. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.

Goodman, R. (1992). Lakota star knowledge. Rosebud, SD: Sinte Gleska University Printing.

Haukoos, G. D., Bordeaux, L., LeBeau, D., & Gunhammer, S. (1995). Importance of American Indian culture in teaching school science: A follow-up study. Journal of American Indian Education, 34(2), 18-26.

Heinrich, J. S. (1977). Native Americans: What not to teach. Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 8(4-5), 26-27.

Indian Nations at Risk Task Force. (1994). Toward true Native education: A treaty of 1992. Journal of American Indian Education, 32(2), 7-56.

LaBonty, J. (1995). A demand for excellence in books for children. Journal of American Indian Education, 34(2), 1-9.

Sando, J. S. (1972). White-created myths about American Indians. In J. Henry (Ed.), The American Indian reader (pp. 130-134). San Francisco: American Indian Educational Publishers.

Seymour-Smith, C. (1986). Macmillan dictionary of anthropology. New York: Macmillan.

U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. (1992). 1990 census of population, general population characteristics, United States (DCESA Publication No. 1990 CP-1-1). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention. (1995). United States pharmacopoeia dispensing information. Rockville, MD: Author.

Wideman, J. E. (1995). Russell Means. Modern Maturity, 38(5), 68-79.

Winthrop, R. H. (1991). Dictionary of concepts in cultural anthropology. New York: Greenwood Press.


Children's Literature

Baylor, B. (1975). The desert is theirs. New York: Aladdin Books. Macmillan. A simple text describing characteristics of the Southwest's deserts, plants, animals and peoples, especially the Papago (Tohono O'Odam) people, who have made the desert their home for centuries. Primary level.

Baylor, B. (1976). Hawk, I'm your brother. New York: Aladdin Books. A story of a Papago (Tohono O'Odam) boy who sees himself as a hawk soaring above the desert. To realize his dream, he nurses an injured hawk back to flight. Primary level.

Blood, C. L. (1984). The goat in the rug. New York: Simon and Schuster. A Navajo story in which a goat, who lived among the people, turned itself into a rug. Primary level.

Bruchac, J. (1995). A boy called slow. New York: Putnam. A story about the childhood of Sitting Bull, the distinguished Lakota holy man who led his nation on the Great Plains between 1831-1890. Primary level and up.

Bruchac, J. (1995). Dog people: Native dog stories. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. A story set 10,000 years ago, when children and dogs had especially close relationships. Each of these stories is based on Abenaki culture and features outdoor adventure, in which children and dogs together find a way to survive. Intermediate level.

Clark, A. N. (1992). There still are buffalo. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press. An informative and sensitive account of the relationship between the buffalo and American Indian peoples of the Great Plains. Primary level and up.

Goble, P. (1987). Buffalo woman. New York: Macmillan. A legend of a man, woman and boy (a buffalo family) who lived in harmony with the Buffalo nation on the Great Plains. Primary level and up.

Goble, P. (1993). Beyond the ridge. New York: Macmillan. A sensitive and fascinating story of an elderly American Indian woman's natural death. It describes American Indian beliefs associated with the afterlife journey. Primary level and up.

Goble, P. (1991). Iktomi and the boulder. New York: Orchard Books. Iktomi, a traditional American Indian trickster, attempts to fight and defeat a boulder with the assistance of flying bats. This is a traditional story that attempts to explain why small stones cover the Great Plains. Primary level and up.

Goodman, R. (1992). Lakota star knowledge. Rosebud, SD: Sinte Gleska University. An explanation of how American Indians of the Great Plains used star knowledge to guide their journeys in life and death. It shares elders' spiritual and historical knowledge. Intermediate level and up.

Martin, R. (1993). The boy who lived with seals. New York: Putnam. This tells the legend of a Chinook boy who was raised by a family of seals along the Northwest Pacific coast. Primary level and up.

Monroe, J., & Williamson, R. A. (1993). First houses: Native American homes and sacred structures. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. This book contains stories and legends associated with American Indian houses and sacred structures from many different nations. Intermediate level and up.

Powell, M. (1993). Wolf tales: Native American children's stories. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press. These seven wolf stories from different American Indian nations incorporate folklore to explain the relationship between animal people and Native people. Primary level and up.

Raczek, L. (1995). The night the grandfathers danced. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing Company. A young woman at Ute Mountain learns respect for elders and cultural customs. Primary level and up.

Roop, P. (1994). Ahyoka and the talking leaves. New York: Morrow. A story of how Sequoyah communicated the meaning and importance of living creatures to her daughter. Intermediate level and up.

Simms, T. E. (1989). Otter boy. Rosebud, SD: Sinte Gleska University Printing. An animal people story that teaches traditional values during the celebration of the autumnal equinox. The story takes place before humankind became Homo Sapiens. Primary level and up.

Velardi, P. (1993). Old father storyteller. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers. A book that retells six warm "grandfather" stories about the Santa Clara Pueblo culture of the Southwest plateau country. Intermediate level and up.

White Deer of Autumn. (1991). Ceremony in the circle of life. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing. A story of Little Turtle, a young boy visited by Star Spirit, who introduces him to his heritage and explains his relationship to all things in the Circle of Life. Primary and intermediate level.

Wolfson, E. (1993). From the earth to beyond the sky: Native American medicine. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. An interesting look into the process and power of American Indian medicine. Intermediate level and up.

Wood, N. (1995). Dancing moons. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers. Wood's carefully crafted poems and heartfelt meditations speak of enduring truths. This book reveals the beauty, mystery and wonder at the core of life. Upper level and up.

Professional Literature

Allen, P. (1992). The sacred hoop: Recovering the feminine in American Indian tradition. Boston: Beacon Press. This book describes the history of women in American Indian culture.

Berkhofer, R. F., Jr. (1978). The white man's Indian. New York: Vintage. Presents literary images of American Indians from the time of Columbus to the present. This work provides a well-documented perspective through history, philosophy and literature. An excellent resource for teachers.

Bruchac, J. (1991). Keepers of the animals. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. A book that presents science, legend and Native culture through stories and activities for children. This volume has a wildlife theme.

Bruchac, J. (1991). Keepers of the earth. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. A book that presents science, legend and Native culture through stories and activities for children. This volume has an ecology and environment theme.

Bruchac, J. (1994). Keepers of life. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. A book that presents science, legend and Native culture through stories and activities for children. This volume has a special emphasis on the discovery of plants.

Cahape, P., & Howley, C. B. (1992). Indian nations at risk: Listening to the people (Contract No. RI-88-062016). Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural and Small School Education. This document summarizes papers that describe American Indian education in the past, and how it might be improved. The papers were commissioned by the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force of the U.S. Department of Education.

Debt, A. (1984). A history of Indians in the United States. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. Many American Indian scholars consider this work to be the best, most complete and most sensitive interpretation of Native history. An excellent resource for teachers.

Deloria, E. C. (1978). Dakota texts. Vermillion, SD: University of South Dakota Press. This book contains stories that were recorded directly from Native storytellers who lived on the Standing Rock, Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. These stories have also been described as parables.

Eastman, C. A. (1980). The soul of the Indian: An interpretation. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. The author describes his nation's spiritual and cultural customs to his grandchildren. Such explanations provide readers with new insights into the lives of both Native and non-Native people.

Evers, L. (1986). Yaqui deer songs - Masobwikam: A Native American poetry. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press. This book presents Native philosophy through mythology, folklore and poetry.

Harvey, K. D. (1994). Indian country: A history of Native people in America. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. The origins and anthropological development of American Indian people in North America are summarized in this excellent resource for teachers.

Reyhner, J. (1994). American Indian/Alaska Native education (Fastback No. 367). Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation. Provides an overview of American Indian/Alaska Native self-determination policy, and how it has been used in teacher education to serve at-risk Native students.

Reyhner, J. (Ed.). (1994). Teaching American Indian students. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. This book of papers explains American Indian education and ethnic identity. It emphasizes cultural characteristics, and suggests how teachers might respond to children through various school disciplines.

White Deer of Autumn. (1992). Native people, Native ways series: Native American book of change; Native American book of knowledge; Native American book of life; Native American book of wisdom. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing. American Indians have traditionally passed wisdom and information to the next generation through stories. These volumes contain representative stories.

Gerry D. Haukoos is Professor of Education, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Illinois State University, Normal. Archie B. Beauvais is Dean of Education and Tribal Studies, Sinte Gleska University, Rosebud, South Dakota.
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Author:Beauvais, Archie B.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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