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Valuing cultural heritages.

Images of objects produced by Native-American cultures are frequently found as curriculum resources in classrooms across the United States. It is important that objects from various cultures be introduced into mainstream classrooms; however, it is equally important that the introduction be handled in a way that is not demeaning to the culture that produced them. This is why we interviewed Navajo high school students and Hopi colleagues to find out how they felt about ethnic objects being a part of standard curricula and how such objects should best be explored.

Talking to High School Students

Chinle (pronounced Chin lee) means water outlet and refers to the mouth of the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced duh shay) in Northeastern Arizona. Chinle is in the heart of the Navajo Nation and has a rich Dine (Navajo) history. We visited several high school art classes here.

We began by asking students how they felt about Native-American objects and symbols being a part of mainstream curriculum. Many students expressed surprise that this would happen; others expressed offense. Some stated a concern that non-Navajo instructors, although well-meaning, might not understand Dine cultural heritage and therefore their teaching might result in lessons that are disrespectful or insensitive to Navajo beliefs.

Our second question asked how Dine culture could be better represented in typical classrooms. When learning about Navajo objects, the high school students said to make sure that the meaning of the object is explored and understood. When learning about Navajo symbols, the symbols should not be copied.

Talking to Colleagues

We asked our Hopi colleagues what role culture plays in their lives. "It is what gives me direction," answered one student. "Hopi is not just handed down through bloodlines, nor is it just the name of a tribe in Arizona, it is also a religion."

This response led us to ask: Should kachina dolls be taught as art lessons in schools?

"First and foremost," we were told, "kachina dolls are agents of Hopi education."

The answer brought us to think deeper about Hopi beliefs concerning kachinas (sometimes called katsina dolls) and how the meaning of kachinas should be approached. While kachinas are elegant in design, they have intent and meaning that goes far deeper than being decorative objects. Providing opportunities for non-Hopi students to research and discover that meaning is essential if kachina dolls or other Hopi objects are to be introduced in conventional classrooms.

Four Points to Keep in Mind

Our visits with Navajo high school students and Hopi classmates taught us some critical points to keep in mind as art educators. These points are:

1. To approach Native-American objects and symbols with great sensitivity;

2. To always seek meaning and intent; and

3. Not to assume that we know what a symbol or object represents.

To this end it is important to avoid making art "in the style of" certain Native-American objects. Totems from tissue paper rolls, ceremonial attire from grocery bags, or kachina coloring book pages lack significance and are disrespectful to Native-American beliefs. A good rule of thumb suggested by one colleague is to first consider your own beliefs and to think about how you would like those principles to be taught. Maintain that same caring when dealing with the beliefs of other cultures.

Denise Horton, Lydia Phelps, and Maggie Smola are art education students at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.
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Title Annotation:Middle School Studio Lesson; Native AMerican art
Author:Smola, Maggie
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:558
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