November is Native American Heritage Month and a great time to incorporate studies of Native American and Indigenous culture into your homeschool learning.
According to the National Congress of American Indians:
The month celebrates “rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people. Heritage Month is also an opportune time to educate the general public about tribes, to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.”
Before you begin your studies with some traditional crafts and information, review these ways to stay authentic and help dispel Native (Indigenous People) myths and stereotypes. (We will refer to Indigenous People as “Native American” during this post to stay consistent with the designation for the month.)
Ways to Celebrate Native American Heritage Month
Teaching Native American Heritage Month Activities
1. Discuss the REAL Thanksgiving.
Although there is nothing wrong with the fun activities during your Thanksgiving learning, it’s really important that we teach our children the real story of Thanksgiving.
When I was growing up, we were taught a very watered down version of the first Thanksgiving, including how the Native American Indians and the Pilgrims were all friends and shared the land and everything was awesome. The end.
As we know, that was not exactly the case. What happened looked very little like the stereotypical “Indian” and Pilgrim figures we see in books and movies.
This can be a tough topic (especially for little ones), so use your own discretion about how much to reveal and when. Search out videos and books on the real stories of the first Thanksgiving. We read Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving each year.
2. Teach Native American studies the right way.
Debbie Reese, a Native American and an educator, recommends the following ways to teach Native American studies:
• Cover contemporary Native Americans doing every day tasks, not just historical figures.
• Make unit studies on different tribes and don’t just study Native Americans as a broad-sweeping generalization.
• Be clear about how different tribes dressed, lived, ate, and what tools they used.
• Critique an image that shows a stereotypical version of a Native American to spark discussion.
• Don’t make your studies just about the first Thanksgiving.
Use this site to direct you on some authentic Native American information.
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3. Understand the importance of Native American storytelling.
Storytelling is an important part of the Native culture and is often misrepresented in our society. According to Reese, “Many mainstream retellings of Native traditional stories are distorted to fit mainstream ideas of what those stories should be. They are turned into Disney-like stories. But traditional Native stories are told for a reason — just like bible stories. An author would not retell Genesis, changing it to suit his or her idea for a plot. Yet that is exactly what happens to our stories.”
Here’s a video of a Native American retelling of a legend that has been passed down through generations:
You can check out more Native American legends here.
Native American Totems
Totems were used with some Native Americans areas like Washington and Alaska. Totems were often used to tell stories. Native American Totem Animals & Their Meanings has a great discussion about totems and also descriptions of common symbols used.
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4. Tackle Native American stereotypes.
Many of the images we present to our children (books, movies, and other media) are of historical Native Americans in feathered headdresses. However, this is a stereotype that isn’t quite factual. The Native Americans across the country dress and live as differently (and, sometimes very similar) as everyone else all across the country.
5. Don’t just focus on historical Native Americans.
Provide some information on contemporary Native Americans to balance the picture. The books Pueblo Storyteller, Pueblo Boy: Growing Up in Two Worlds, and Children of Clay: A Family of Pueblo Potters (We Are Still Here) have all been recommended by Native American educators.
6. Sample some authentic Native American food.
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Did you know that there was probably no turkey at the first Thanksgiving? (The fowl was probably more like ducks or geese.)
No pumpkin pie either . . .
Go beyond what you think you know about Native American food from Thanksgiving and check out some authentic Native American food. You’ll have fun making recipes with the kids! Just be sure that the foods you are pairing with your studies are authentic to the tribe you’re studying!
7. Have fun, but be clear about your crafts and projects.
It’s OK to make crafts and have fun with your Native American studies, but do so in a way that makes sense and honors the culture. Debbie Reese also weighs in on this:
“AVOID PRESENTING SACRED ACTIVITIES IN TRIVIAL WAYS. In early childhood classrooms, for example, a popular activity involves children in making headbands with feathers, even though feathers are highly religious articles for some tribes. By way of example, consider how a devout Catholic might feel about children making a chalice out of paper cups and glitter.”
Instead, try designing a Navajo rug (a lesson in symmetry), making a Kachina Doll, creating a buffalo hide, learning about beadwork, creating a story with a totem, or making pottery. (Just please don’t do the over-crafted feathered headdress.)
BOOKS ABOUT NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE
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