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Making native American lessons meaningful.

Teachers are the primary decision-makers in their classrooms. Their decisions are deeply influenced by their education backgrounds and personal experiences (Fennimore, 1989). Several such experiences led me to review the way the American Thanksgiving holiday is observed in my kindergarten classroom.

A traditional focus at Thanksgiving time is an extensive unit on Woodland Indians. In this unit, children make headdresses, learn "Indian symbols" as written language, make teepees and canoes, learn an "Indian Dance" and finally hold an Indian powwow. The children appear happy and involved in these activities. The historical accuracy of this curriculum was never questioned and variations of the same activities are repeated at different primary grade levels.

Before one of the powwows, however, I received a letter from a Native American parent that caused me to rethink the value of the curriculum. Although this brief communication was in no way critical of the curriculum, it brought to the surface my feelings of discomfort about the unit. The planned curriculum did not reflect the tragic "Trail of Tears" experience of the Cherokee people, or indeed any events that were historically true or indicative of Native American culture.

While on a train trip through the Northern United States, I had another provocative experience. When I commented on the number of isolated, desolate trailer-dwellings, I was told that these substandard dwellings were very likely Native American homes. Native Americans who do not live on reservations or in cities often live in such homes. My class activities failed to reflect present-day Native American experiences and lifestyles, either positive or negative.

Ravitch (1991, 1992) contends that social studies lessons "must avoid mindless celebration of our own or anyone else's history". Many Native Americans view Columbus Day and Thanksgiving as days of mourning, equating these holidays with the European invasion and virtual genocide of their people (Derman-Sparks, 1989; Dorris, 1991; Harjo, 1991). Native American struggles concerning cultural and religious issues and land rights continue today (Baum, 1992). Traditional classroom activities support unrealistic myths and stereotypes that are more legend than historical fact (Jarolimek, 1982; Seefeldt, 1989).

The "knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values gained from social studies" lessons should be a prime consideration of the curriculum (Seefeldt, 1989, p. 11). Presenting differing views of the European-Native American experience can give children a much broader educational and historical background. In my experience as a preschool and public school teacher, even very young children come to school with stereotypical ideas about Native American peoples. A social studies curriculum should counter such inaccurate information and provide children with factual knowledge. Valuable learning is taking place when teachers help to develop skills that will be used in real-life situations.

Figure 1


Dear Mrs. Shaffer,

Because I am a "Cherokee-Comanche" Indian, I decided to make the children a traditional gift my family would give:

fruit (apple)--the sweetness of life corn and nuts (muffin, almonds)--strength during hard times dried beef (sausages)--comfort through a long journey

William's great-great grandmother Abigail was a full-blooded Cherokee who was on the "Trail of Tears."

Another great-great grandmother was a full-blooded Comanche from Texas.

He also has a great-great grandfather who was a Texas Ranger.

We honor our family and hope you enjoy our gift.

Sincerely, Linda Brown

Curriculum Suggestions

Curriculum themes provide structure and purpose for planning. Extending the curriculum beyond traditional themes provides children with more meaningful learning experiences (Nunnelley, 1990). Careful curriculum planning also allows development of concepts and critical thinking skills.

* Teach Children To Empathize and Think Critically. Children can learn to empathize with another person's point of view through role-playing. The motivation behind particular actions becomes clearer and more meaningful. A story that is effective in helping children achieve this empathy with differing views is My House and the Strange People (Derman-Sparks, 1989, p. 90). This story describes what happens when unknown people are invited to share a home by a family who views all living things as brothers. Role-playing the story helps children identify the feelings of those who willingly shared beloved possessions, only to lose the possessions entirely. Children can become critical thinkers when given opportunities to evaluate differing viewpoints. When presented with opposing views of a situation, children are able to make decisions about fairness and unfairness (Califf, 1991; Derman-Sparks, 1989).

* Identify Stereotypes with Children. Children can be taught to identify and critique stereotypes. By using books and photographs, teachers can help children identify accurate portrayals of Native Americans. One useful book is Ten Little Rabbits (Grossman & Long, 1991). The artwork is beautiful and the information is accurate. The children compared this book with other counting books and with books on Native American themes. After making these comparisons, the children responded to the following questions: Is it fair to portray Native Americans as animals? Are there any other books that counted ethnic groups of people? Does this book portray Native Americans as individuals?

These questions occurred to me as I read the book. I felt I had several choices. I could read the book to my class or avoid it completely. Or I could read it and extend learning by using questions and comparisons, as described. A group of undergraduate children's literature students examined the book and offered another choice. A Native American student in the class liked the book because the stories passed on in her family used animals as characters, as this book does. If the children were presented with this information prior to hearing the story, they could learn different ways of perceiving ideas.

* Teach Children To Make Comparisons. Children can learn to make comparisons of past and present lifestyles, including dress, food, housing and transportation. Ceremonial and special occasion dress can be compared to everyday dress. The children brought in pictures of themselves in dress-up and everyday clothes. These pictures served as a basis for discussion of why we wear special clothing for certain occasions and why Native Americans would do the same (Derman-Sparks, 1989).

* Teach Children Cultural Commonalities and Differences. Another approach for teaching about Thanksgiving is to compare it to other harvest celebrations. Children can contrast and compare the Thanksgiving holiday celebrated by their own families with harvest celebrations that take place in other cultures. Harvest celebrations are held by Asian, Jewish, Moslem, African American and Japanese peoples. Dates vary due to seasonal differences, but particular foods, legends and beliefs are common in all the celebrations. Focusing on the common and unique elements of these holiday celebrations can broaden children's awareness and perceptions of other cultures (Fleming, Hamilton & Hicks, 1977).

Holiday celebrations are an important part of children's lives. Historical holidays, such as Thanksgiving, will probably remain part of the social studies curriculum. Teachers should focus the curriculum to make Thanksgiving an opportunity for appreciating the diversity of Native Americans and other cultures (Dorris, 1991). At the same time, teachers can also appreciate their students' capabilities and allow them to know and think about historical truths.


Baum, D. (1992, March-April). Sacred places. Mother Jones, pp. 32-38.

Califf, J. (1991). Native land rights: A role play. In B. Bigelow, B. Miner & B. Peterson (Eds.), Rethinking Columbus (pp. 12-13). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

Derman-Sparks, L., & ABC Task Force. (1989). Anti-bias curriculum: Tools for empowering young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Dorris, M. (1991). Why I am not thankful for Thanksgiving. In B. Bigelow, B. Miner & B. Peterson (Eds.), Rethinking Columbus (pp. 12-13). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

Fennimore, B. S. (1989). Child advocacy for early childhood educators. New York: Teachers College Press.

Fleming, B. M., Hamilton, D. S., & Hicks, J. D. (1977). Resources for creative teaching in early childhood education. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Grossman, V., & Long, S. (1991). Ten little rabbits. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Harjo, S. S. (1991, Fall/Winter). My turn: I won't be celebrating Columbus Day. Newsweek, p. 32.

Jarolimek, J. (1982). Social studies in elementary education (6th ed.). New York: Macmillan.

Nunnelley, J. C. (1990). Beyond turkeys, Santas, snowmen, and hearts: How to plan innovative curriculum themes. Young Children, 46(1), 24-29.

Ravitch, D. (1991, Dec; 1992, Jan.). A culture in common. Educational Leadership, 48(4), pp. 8-11.

Seefeldt, C. (1989). Social studies for primary children (3rd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Denise D. Shaffer is a Kindergarten Teacher, Indiana Area School District, Indiana, Pennsylvania.
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Author:Shaffer, Denise D.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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