On October 30, 2015, President Obama proclaimed the month of November as Native American Heritage Month. Here are some tips and ideas for consideration, for educators and parents of both Native and non-Native students.
1. Firstly, talk with students about the significance of the month and presidential proclamation
Review and discuss the presidential proclamation with students. As many educators are aware, students want to know why they learn what they do. This would be a great opportunity to discuss the importance of diversity, human rights, and equality. You can access the full transcript of the proclamation here.
2. Balance lessons with stories of the past, and, more contemporary stories
The overwhelming majority of representations of Native Americans, including many educational resources, depict Native Americans as people of the past — in tipis, buckskin, and feathers. And while the past is definitely a part of Native American culture that we are proud of, showing Native people predominantly as people of the past limits Native American children from seeing themselves as a people of the future. Many studies continue to affirm the importance of providing Native youth with positive examples of the present. Despite our invisibility to many members of the dominant society, Native Americans are diverse, intelligent, and modern people of today.
3. Balance representations of Native American men and women
Historical record tends to favor male leaders and chiefs, however women have historically been central to tribal societies. Educational resources on Native American chiefs and male leaders are in larger supply in comparison to resources on Native American women, beyond the standard lessons on Sacajawea and Pocahontas (and actually, most stories on Pocahontas are extremely inaccurate; according to John Smith’s account, Pocahontas was 11 when she met John Smith, and they were never a “thing,” contrary to Disney’s version).
Also, remember to highlight women of the past and women of the future. For example, Zitkala Sa (Dakota), Lozen (Apache), and Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee), represent brave women leaders of the past; and more contemporarily, there are a growing number of contemporary Native American women, perfect to highlight for the month of November. For example, Winona Laduke (Anishinaabe), is an environmentalist, former Vice Presidential candidate, and author; Ashley Callingbull (Cree) is a current Mrs. Universe who uses her platform to speak about social justice issues; Diane Humetewa (Hopi) is the first Native American woman to serve as a federal judge; and Shoni Shimmel (Umatilla) is a professional basketball player in the WNBA. Of course, there are countless others.
4. Highlight the diversity of tribal nations throughout America
There are presently over 567 federally recognized tribes in the United States with very diverse communities and distinct cultures. Historically, tribal societies ranged from agricultural sedentary societies, to fishing societies of the Pacific Northwest, gathering societies of the desert, and hunting societies who relied on large game like buffalo. And although there are certainly a plethora of beautiful plains tribes, avoid an overemphasis on plains tribes; Plains tribes, tipis, and horse cultures tend to dominate public consciousness concerning Indians, virtually functioning to erase the beautiful diversity and depth of many different tribal societies. Additionally, indigenous tribal societies extend throughout all of North America, including Mexico and Canada.
5. Use the term “Nation” to describe tribes, and discuss tribal sovereignty
All 567 federally recognized tribes have sovereign rights which pre-date the existence of America. Today, tribes retain inherent sovereignty. The U.S. Constitution affirms tribal sovereignty, and the supremacy clause of the constitution likewise affirms the supremacy of treaties with tribal nations. Tribal nations exercise sovereignty in a number of ways, among them, by operating their own tribal governments, determining membership, maintaining law and order, and engaging in relationships with other tribal nations throughout the U.S., and with the U.S. government.
6. Focus on stories of resiliency, yet still acknowledge historical fact
It is so important to acknowledge the depth of the Native American experience, which does in fact include a lot of historical and ongoing tragedy. Avoid glossing over historical fact, yet make effort to highlight human resiliency. Native youth, especially, need to hear stories of resilience. This would be a great time to underscore the stories of contemporary Native American thought leaders, innovators, and community organizers. Consider the 4 to 1, positive to negative, ratio.
In general, bear in mind that popular American consciousness regarding Native American people has suffered from generations of historical omissions and pervasive stereotypes. Your work as a parent and educator in planting the seeds of consciousness within the minds of children is not only valuable to their individual educational process, but moreover, the lessons you teach pertaining to Native Americans contributes to a larger understanding of the Native American experience, as well as an understanding of greater human diversity.
Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.