With all the difficult conversations that have come up in race and culture, Native American history and experience falls into a category that will make you tread lightly. However, if you do your research, your child, children, or students will get to know many of the richest cultures out there. Here are five tips to help you teach Native American or American Indian culture at home or in the classroom.
Don’t lump all Native Americans into the same group
It is a popular thought that all Native Americans are the same — one homogenous group of people who look alike, speak the same language, and share the same customs and history. Nothing could be further from the truth. From Census data released in 2021, the number of people who self-identified as solely “Native American or Alaska Native” in 2020 was 3.7 million and represent half of the nation’s languages and cultures. This statistic may seem incredible but remember that Native Americans had thousands of years to migrate across the country in small groups and develop unique cultural identities.
If you teach anything at home or in school, make sure that it is the fact of varied language and cultural traditions that can be found in the approximately 500 Native American tribes across North America.
Show images that will counter stereotypes
Children absorb stereotypes from the mainstream media at a very young age. You will find that preschool-aged children feel fear toward Native Americans, most likely because of the warlike images they’ve seen in sports mascots, children’s books and movies. Try to counter these stereotypes by exposing non-Native American children to images of Native Americans from today that are not so different to them. If you can, invite a visitor to come and spend time; encourage questions and make it an educational visit, not an entertainer.
Introduce books, art, music, and curriculum that were created by a Native Americans
Stories are best told from the first person and Native Americans are putting enormous effort into preserving, restoring, and reviving their cultural heritages for future generations. Rebekah Gien gives a list of beautiful children’s books that support learning and Native American storytelling.
When listening to Native American music, avoid the traditional hand-to-mouth style that we remember seeing in Peter Pan. Also understand that different art styles belong to different tribes. Native Art in Context provides a wonderful and detailed overview of the various regions of Native American artwork.
Understand what is sacred
Before getting your child(ren) to do a craft, make sure to research whether the items used are seen as sacred in that Native American community. For instance, in some communities, feathers are considered sacred and only used for religious ceremonies. Rebekah Gien gives a different approach to Native American crafts for preschoolers. Instead of making a “Native American ______”, children can be introduced to Native American art. You can show them children’s books created by American Indian artists. Kids are then encouraged to make their own art, pulling from their own cultural roots and life experience, instead of imitating a Native American culture.” (Rebekahgienapp.com)
Don’t use a play tipi in your classroom or home
A popular item that we see today is the toy tipi that sits in the living room or classroom. At best, it’s a “conversation starter” that sends the wrong message that all Native Americans lived in tipis. (Similar to artwork, housing structures varied in material from region to region.) It also encourages the stereotypical images of that warlike American Indian. At worst, it’s considered cultural appropriation and offensive by many in Native American communities. It’s recommended by experts and teachers to consider getting rid of the tipi in your living room.
Teach about Native Americans from the Bermuda context
Not all Native American communities have the same historical experience and if you’re looking for an interactive environment in the Bermuda context, Carter House teaches about Native St. David’s Islanders and the Native community. You can also find a biennial powwow festival that celebrates Bermuda’s ancestry with Native Americans and slavery. Highlights include traditional dance, drums, food, arts and crafts. The children are invited to join in the dancing, but be sure to emphasise the difference between the past and present American Indians, otherwise, children will come away thinking that the community is extinct.
Join The BEN Book Club for more tips on teaching culture to your preschooler.
Kristen Scott Ndiaye is a mother of two, an entrepreneur, the daughter of teachers, and an advocate for change. She has worked in publishing, literacy, and education.