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Elementary Students Learn about Native Americans:

The Development of Knowledge and Empathy


About These Studies

The information presented in this article is derived from two studies, both performed in a suburban school system. This system was selected because its primarily lower-middle/working class families are near the national average on a variety of educational and socioeconomic indicators. Furthermore, its social studies curriculum features the expanding communities sequence that is used in most U.S. elementary schools. In each study, samples of students, organized by gender and achievement level, were interviewed individually about topics addressed in social studies. Most questions were open ended and followed up by probing designed to elicit extended statements of students’ knowledge and thinking. Analyses focused not just on the accuracy of responses, but on the qualitative nuances that provided insights into the students’ ideas, including their misconceptions.

Researchers interviewed students twice (pre and post-unit) about topics addressed at their grade level, but interviewed students just once for other topics. Because the focus of this article is on long-term trends in knowledge development rather than on the short-term effects of a given instructional unit, the information presented here is derived from the pre-unit interviews (from grades in which units on Native Americans were taught) and the one-time-only interviews (for the other grades).

Students in grades K-4 were asked about “Indians” rather than about “Native Americans,” because all students were familiar with the former term but most were ignorant of or confused about the meaning of the latter. Fifth graders were asked about “Native Americans,” because their teacher had explained to them that this was another term for American Indians (preferable because “Indians” was a term mistakenly introduced by Columbus, who thought that he had reached the Indies). Interviewers, however, also used the terms “Native American Indians” or simply “Indians” with fifth graders who seemed confused about the meaning of “Native Americans.”

Finally, though different sets of questions were used at different grade levels, there were enough commonalities to allow comparisons across grades on several dimensions. These findings are summarized in Tables 1 and 2.


Jere Brophy

Little information has been collected on what elementary students know and think about particular historical topics at different grade levels. The information that exists is, however, revealing. Research shows, for example, that much of the historical knowledge of fifth graders is organized in narrative form, so that it tends to feature stories focused on a few hero figures rather than less personalized causal analyses of historical trends. The students’ narratives also tend to compress time and space by depicting face-to-face interactions between people whose life spans did not overlap (for example, Columbus and the Pilgrims).1

Surveying students’ existing knowledge of a subject makes it possible for the teacher to plan instruction that builds on students’ valid ideas while addressing their misconceptions. This article describes and evaluates the ideas of elementary students about Native Americans as revealed by two studies. The students surveyed were in kindergarten and grades one, two, four, and five.


Previous Findings

Two previous studies indicate that preschool and kindergarten children growing up in the contemporary United States tend to develop negatively-stereotyped images of Native Americans. Ramsey et al. found that four-year-olds held cartoon-like (and partly cartoon-based) stereotypes of Indians, whom they depicted as wearing feathers or headdresses and often wielding tomahawks or engaging in acts of violence.2 These children also thought that Indians lived only in the past. For these students, a month-long curriculum on traditional and contemporary Native American life was effective in increasing the accuracy of their images of Native Americans. Some children, however, did not realize that the “Native Americans” discussed in the unit were the same people as the “Indians” that they had heard about in other contexts. These children retained the negative stereotype of “Indians” alongside their newly acquired and more positive image of “Native Americans.”

A League of Women Voters study found that three-fourths of the kindergarten children interviewed described Indians as wearing feathers or animal skins, hunting with bows and arrows, or living in tipis.3 Twenty percent described Indians as mean and hostile, and likely to kill or shoot people. These children also saw Indians as far removed from themselves in both time and space. Fifth graders interviewed in the same study provided much more realistic views, although they focused more on the past than the present and tended to describe the Plains tribes’ characteristics as typical of Indians in general.


Stages of Understanding Native Americans

The findings from our studies help illustrate how students progress from the negative and stereotyped views of Native Americans that they bring to school in kindergarten, to the more realistic and empathetic views they develop through the grades, to a tapering off of information about and consequent empathy for Native Americans that results from the traditional teaching of U.S. history. Changes in response patterns across grades K-5 suggest that students’ knowledge and thinking about Native Americans tends to proceed through the following stages:

1. No knowledge

2. Cartoon stereotypes of the appearance or behavior of Indians (tipis, bows and arrows, warlike tendencies)

3. Indians as the first people in America, wilderness survivors, and teachers of and learners from the Pilgrims and other early arriving Europeans

4. Knowledge about Indians’ lives and cultures and empathy with them as “noble ecologists” and victims of European aggression and greed

5. Distancing and loss of empathy as attention shifts to the pioneers and the westward expansion of the United States


In Kindergarten and First Grade

Findings from the early grades indicate that contemporary American children still enter school with cartoon stereotypes of Indians picked up through exposure to television and other media. Even though “westerns” have faded in prominence as TV and movie fare, children still acquire the Plains Indians stereotype through cartoons, Disney movies, and other sources.

When asked, kindergarten students characterized Indians almost exclusively as warlike, dancing around campfires, hunting with bows and arrows, or attacking people with axes. For example, students responded “They are bad and they don’t like people,” “The bad Indians kill people and the good Indians want to kill the bad Indians,” “They do wars and are bad,” “They sit on the ground in a circle,” “They have bows and arrows,” “They make a sound by putting their hand over their mouth,” “They dance around a fire,” and “They put ropes around people” (the last statement made by a child who had recently seen the movie Peter Pan).

This warlike stereotype persisted in about half of the first graders. In the first grade, however, it was embedded within story lines involving Indians as enemies of Pilgrims, soldiers, or cowboys, particularly in conflicts over land. A first grader claimed, for example, “The cowboys and the Indians were mean to each other ‘cause they didn’t want no one on their state.” In addition, first graders began to emphasize that Indians lived under primitive conditions: “They had to live in the woods, hunt and fish for food, wear clothes that they made themselves...,”etc. Most first graders had begun to think about Indians as people rather than as cartoon stereotypes, but they did not so much empathize with them as pity them because they had to lead such difficult lives.

Some of the kindergarten and first grade students not only stereotyped Indians but spoke as if “Indians” were qualitatively different from “people.” Comments included “Real people don’t like Indians mostly,” “They come out when it is dark,” and “I knew he was an Indian because people couldn’t do that.” These comments underscore the problematic nature of Indian stereotyping if not addressed explicitly in the curriculum.


In Second Grade

Second graders showed that they had been influenced by instruction about Columbus, the First Thanksgiving, and Michigan Indians, as well as by exposure to children’s literature. Stereotypes of Indians as bad, mean, or warlike had virtually disappeared, and responses focused on tipis and other homes, feathered headdresses and other clothing, hunting or fishing for meat, growing vegetables, picking berries, or arts and crafts (making clothes and shoes, making bracelets, painting designs on tipis).

There was some mention of Indians teaching wilderness survival skills to the Pilgrims, but most discussion of encounters with Europeans pictured the Europeans as cultural teachers and the Indians as imitators or learners. For example, about half of the second graders thought mistakenly that Indians originally lived in tipis but switched to log cabins once they learned about them from Europeans. Interestingly, second graders generally expressed neither pity nor empathy for Indians. Instead, they described them matter-of-factly as primitive people who adopted European ways once exposed to them.

Second graders also appeared to be in the midst of a shift from a cultural to a genetic definition of Indians. Most of the kindergarten and first grade students believed that Indians became extinct, that no full-blooded Indians exist anymore, or that if such people exist, they are not Indians (e.g., because Indians were people from the past who were mean). One kindergartner said that Columbus had killed all of the Indians. Another said that Indians couldn’t have children because “they were all boys.” In contrast, more than half of the second graders knew or guessed that many Indians are still alive today, and large majorities of the fourth and fifth graders possessed this knowledge.


In the Upper Grades

Fourth graders showed the effects of curriculum units and books on Indian life. In this sample, none stereotyped Indians negatively and only a few mentioned interactions with Europeans (trading with them, defending against their encroachments). Most of the fourth graders’ responses focused on everyday Indian life: living in tipis or longhouses, hunting and fishing for meat, growing vegetables, and picking berries. Late in the school year, these students were exposed to a unit on tribes indigenous to their region as part of their study of Michigan history. Carry-over effects from this unit were obvious in the fifth grade interviews.

The fifth graders’ responses resembled those of fourth graders in focusing on housing, hunting and fishing, and growing and gathering. However, the fifth graders described these activities in much more detail and elaborated with reference to making clothing or moccasins, telling legends, and other aspects of Indian culture.

In contrasting Indians and European immigrants, fourth and fifth graders expressed empathy with Indians in two respects. First, many of the students had picked up the “noble ecologist” stereotype of Indians. Students described them as killing only what they needed, sharing food with other tribal members, and showing concern for one another and for the physical environment. For example, one said, “The Indians used everything . . . if they had a deer, then they would use everything on the buck. The Europeans would use what they needed and throw the rest away. The Europeans were wastefu#148;. Second, many of the students depicted Indians as victims of imperialistic and greedy Europeans who mistreated both people and the environment. One stated: “The Indians wanted to be friends. They didn’t want to hurt your feelings, but the Europeans wanted to get the furs and take the land away from the Native Americans. The Europeans wanted to hate and steal the land. The Indians just wanted to be friends.”

As they began fifth grade, students were both knowledgeable about and empathetic toward Indians. Furthermore, the fifth graders were taught a unit on Native Americans that included descriptions of the lives and cultures of five tribal groups located in different parts of North America. Responses to the post-unit interview indicated that this unit further developed their knowledge about Indian lives and cultures and deepened their empathy with Indians. Evidence of this knowledge and empathy appeared in responses to interviews about the exploration, discovery, and early colonization years of the American continents. Instruction about these eras included emphasis on the ways Indians were mistreated by Europeans and the ways Indians helped Europeans by teaching them wilderness survival skills.

After reaching a peak around the middle of the fifth grade, however, the students’ knowledge about Indians was put into abeyance and their empathy with Indians began to dwindle. The change began with the unit on the American Revolution, which shifted attention from events in North America in general to a focus on the English colonists. As students learned about the problems that the colonists experienced with the French, the Indians, and later the British, the colonists gradually became “us,” and the people with whom they came into conflict gradually became “them.” This identification tendency gathered momentum as students went on to learn about the pioneers traveling over the mountains and “settling” the west, and so on. From this point onward, in both the textbook and the teacher’s explanations and story telling, the pioneers were the heroes of the stories. Except for the brief appearance of Sacagawea, Indians disappeared or were mentioned only as faceless impediments to western expansion.


Implications for the Curriculum

The findings presented here have implications for four aspects of planning curriculum and instruction for elementary social studies: (1) how teaching about Native Americans in grades K-5 might be improved by retaining its positive elements but eliminating its negative ones, (2) how empathy with Native Americans might be sustained as the study of U.S. history progresses in fifth grade and beyond, (3) the potential advantages and pitfalls involved in using children’s books as data sources for historical study, and (4) the value of eliciting students’ ideas about the topics of instruction.


Building on the Positive

The social studies curriculum experienced by these students was effective in eliminating cartoon stereotypes of Indians and establishing a base of knowledge that was reasonably accurate (from both historical and cultural perspectives). By the time they completed their Native Americans unit as fifth graders, the students had acquired considerable knowledge about Native Americans. This knowledge became both more differentiated and better organized (around the notion of five main tribal groups that lived in different parts of the continent and had contrasting customs).

Even the minority of students who were still operating with the stereotype of all Native Americans as living in tipis and hunting buffalo had learned that this image fit the Plains tribes much better than it did the other four tribal groups. Students who already understood that there were different tribal groups with different customs had learned much more about the similarities and differences among the groups and could use the notion of five main groups as a way to organize their knowledge.

The most obvious development and solidification of knowledge occurred with respect to the Eastern Woodlands tribes, about whom the students entered the unit with the most prior knowledge (from earlier studies of Michigan Indians). The process of comparing and contrasting the different tribal groups helped students to develop a better understanding of the implications of saying that the Eastern Woodlands tribes were farmers who raised crops on good farmland and hunted in game-rich forests. Most indicated appreciation of the fact that life conditions were much more difficult for the Plains tribes than for the Eastern Woodlands tribes, and some were aware of the geographical reasons for this.

In many respects, the students also showed a great deal of the kind of empathy that Dickenson and Lee have stressed as important for providing a basis for understanding people from the past in their own terms.4 Most students learned to interpret the details of Native Americans’ lives and customs in relation to their times and environments, and had come to view Native Americans with empathetic understanding or even romanticized adulation.

Native American religious beliefs and customs were the major exception to this pattern of positive views. Apparently, these had not been explained in terms that would allow the students to relate them to their own religious beliefs and customs, so they seemed strange or pointless. The students did not make connections between the Native Americans’ pantheistic practices and modern monotheistic practices such as blessings of crops or prayers of supplication or thanksgiving (e.g., for good weather or a good harvest).

Both before and after separate units on Native Americans and European exploration, the fifth graders had difficulty with questions about what the Europeans and the Native Americans respectively brought to the Encounter. Through their fourth grade unit on Michigan history, and especially their fifth grade unit on Native Americans, these students had come to view Native Americans with a degree of empathy and a good deal of respect. The students did not have richly detailed images of the Europeans of the time, however, and many elements of their knowledge of colonists were negative ones.

Some stereotyped the Europeans as greedy and otherwise immoral people who practiced slavery, confiscated other people’s valuables, and murdered anyone who tried to stop them. These students had difficulty in identifying similarities between the two groups. They had much less difficulty in identifying differences, but the differences they stated tended to reflect the stereotypes described above. The students had not yet learned much about, nor come to appreciate the implications of the cultural exchanges that changed both the Old World and the New World in so many ways as a result of the Encounter.5

These findings suggest the value of helping students to appreciate the Encounter in ways that do not romanticize or demonize either group. Egan and others, noting children’s responsiveness to stories that feature romantic elements such as heroes fighting for good against evil, have argued that the elementary curriculum should emphasize such stories.6 They argue that not only conventional history rendered in story form, but also myths, folk tales, and history-based fiction, would complement the curriculum. Traditional applications of this approach to “the age of exploration” have featured Washington Irving’s version of a heroic Columbus sailing westward to fulfill his dreams, and keeping his head when all about him were becoming hysterical with fear of sailing over the edge of the flat earth. More recent romantic versions have emphasized the scourges visited upon gentle, nature-loving Native Americans by evil, greedy European conquerors.

Such stories are interesting and memorable, but they encourage the development of misconceptions about the Encounter. They should be replaced, or at least balanced, by more realistic treatments that reflect what is known about the motives and the information available to the historical actors in question, without either idealizing or demonizing them. Guidelines published by the National Council for the Social Studies along with instructional materials developed in connection with the Columbian Quincentenary provide a good start in this direction.7


Maintaining Empathy for Native Americans

The traditional elementary social studies curriculum apparently is effective in developing both knowledge about and empathy with Native Americans up until about the middle of fifth grade. After that, however, Native Americans tend to disappear from the curriculum or to be treated in ways likely to reduce empathy. As attention focuses more and more exclusively on the colonies, the pioneers, and westward expansion of the new nation, Native Americans tend to appear primarily as faceless impediments to the pioneers’ agendas, rather than as fully developed characters with agendas of their own.

A desirable addition to the curriculum would be periodic updates about the experiences of Native Americans as the United States expanded westward. At a minimum, this would include reminders that the settlers were taking over lands occupied by Native Americans, who were forced to keep retreating ahead of an advancing frontier if they wanted to maintain their traditional ways of living. A more complete version would inform students about how different tribal groups responded to these pressures, the repeated federal duplicity regarding treaties, the establishment of reservations, and such key events as the Ghost Dance Movement and the Trail of Tears. Although adding topics to an overburdened curriculum is always daunting, it seems important at least to make students aware that Native Americans were resisting invasion of the lands they occupied, not just attacking settlers because they were unpredictable or hostile people.


Using Children’s Literature Effectively

A third issue is the use of children’s literature as part of the content base for teaching history. Historically based literature offers several advantages over traditional textbooks. Well-written stories, especially stories of adventure or heroism that capture the imagination, tend to stick in children’s minds. Compared with more analytic approaches, the story approach is more interesting to students, and the narrative format makes it easier for them to remember connected elements of information. The narrative mode seems well suited both to history as subject matter and to children as learners.

Historical narrative and children’s fiction in particular, however, need to be used judiciously by social studies educators. Reliance on these resources can lead to romanticized understandings. Teachers must make clear distinctions between historical accounts and fictional recreations. Furthermore, they must be responsible for exposing fictional selections that are not historically accurate.8 For example, the fifth graders we studied were taught about the Wilderness Trail and the initial migration over the Appalachians using selections from children’s literature that focused on the pioneers’ hardships. These selections brought to life the difficulties involved in crossing the mountains and the many ways in which families had to be self-sufficient. The pioneers in these stories were heroic, while the Native Americans—if not actually demonized—were treated as faceless “hostiles” against whom the pioneers had to protect themselves.

Even when adequate in historical accuracy, children’s literature is problematic as a content source if it focuses attention on particular examples or even trivial incidents at the expense of more powerful concepts or generalizations. In teaching these fifth graders about the Lewis and Clark expedition, for example, the teacher relied primarily on the book Bird Woman and Flaming Hair rather than on relevant material from the textbook.9 As a result, many students remembered little more about this expedition than that it involved the adventures of people named Flaming Hair, Long Knife, and Bird Woman (the names for Clark, Lewis, and Sacagawea used in the book).

Thus, the findings indicate two cautions regarding the use of children’s literature in teaching history. First, when using narrative sources to create memorable images of historical events, be sure to fill in gaps in students’ understandings and establish a “bigger picture” perspective within which to situate the discrete occurrences depicted in narratives. Elementary students can understand general chronological sequences (e.g., that land transportation developed from walking to horse-drawn carriages to engine-powered vehicles) even though they may have difficulty mapping these advances onto timelines or keeping track of particular dates. Supported by references to simplified maps and timelines, contextual information in narrative form helps students construct more coherent accounts of developments across time in their study of history.10

Second, the collection of children’s literature used as source material should include stories that convey the points of view of Native Americans (and other minorities in different contexts). Exposure to such stories broadens students’ understanding of U.S. history by expanding their purviews. Furthermore, the personalized treatments of hero figures help students to develop and maintain empathy with Native Americans as people. Many (though not all) children’s literature selections dealing with Native Americans not only offer engaging stories but also embed these stories within historical contexts that are portrayed accurately and provide useful extensions of history instruction. The NCSS bulletin Teaching about Native Americans contains many useful suggestions in this regard, as does an ERIC digest by Reese.11

In summary, contemporary elementary social studies teaching seems to be effective in helping students discard negative stereotypes of Native Americans and replace them with networks of mostly accurate information. By making some minor improvements, teachers should be able to optimize students’ historical knowledge and empathy in ways that neither romanticize nor demonize any of the groups represented. These adjustments to the curriculum involve retaining the positive elements of the traditional curriculum (e.g., studying the lives and cultures of selected Native American tribal groups viewed in their own right and from their own points of view, not just in the context of their interactions with Europeans), making changes or additions where needed (e.g., making sure that the points of view of Native Americans do not just disappear once attention begins to focus on the development of the United States as a nation), and being both more selective (for historical accuracy) and more inclusive (of multiple points of view) in identifying children’s literature selections to use as sources for historical content.


Eliciting Students’ Ideas

Finally, it is worth noting that in teaching about history, or any other social studies subject, there is value in taking time to elicit students’ ideas before, during, and following instruction. This can be done with the class as a whole or with selected individuals, either informally or through structured methods such as K-W-L.12 The activities may call for oral or written responses, although oral responses to open-ended questions provide the most useful insights into students’ knowledge and thinking.

When conducted prior to the unit, such questioning provides information about students’ existing knowledge and misconceptions. During the unit, it helps teachers to make sure that the students have grasped key ideas and elicits additional misconceptions that may need attention. Following the unit, it generates vital assessment information that is more indicative of the extent and nature of students’ understandings than the minimal responses generated by tests that require only matching, circling, or filling in blanks. Questions that call for explanations of the reasons for, or implications of, historical events are especially useful in revealing the degree to which students connect what they learn to larger historical trends and themes.13



1. Keith C. Barton, “History—It Can Be Elementary: An Overview of Elementary Students’ Understanding of History,” Social Education 61 (1997): 13-16; Jere Brophy and B. VanSledright, Teaching and Learning History in Elementary Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997); M. McKeown and I. Beck, “Making Sense of Accounts of History: Why Young Students Don’t and How They Might,” in G. Leinhardt, I. Beck, and C. Stainton, eds., Teaching and Learning in History (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1994), 1-26.

2. P. Ramsey, H. Holbrook, H. Johnson, and C. O’Toole, “The Effects of a Multicultural Curriculum on Children’s Perceptions of Native Americans” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, Calif., April 1992).

3. League of Women Voters, “Children’s Impressions of American Indians: A Survey of Suburban Kindergarten and Fifth-Grade Children: Conclusions,” in Arlene B. Hirschfelder, ed., American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1975), 7-14.

4. A. Dickenson and P. Lee, “Making Sense of History,” in A. Dickenson, P. Lee, and P. Rogers, eds., Learning History (London: Heinemann, 1984): 117-53.

5. See Brophy and VanSledright, Teaching and Learning History, for a detailed presentation of the fifth grade interview data.

6. Kieran Egan, Teaching as Storytelling: An Alternative Approach to Teaching and the Curriculum (London: Routledge, 1988).

7. See National Council for the Social Studies, Position Statement “The Columbian Quincentenary: An Educational Opportunity” Social Education 56 (1992): 248-49; James E. Davis and Sharryl Davis Hawke, “Seeds of Change: Cutting-Edge Knowledge and the Columbian Quincentenary,” Social Education 56 (1992): 320-22; and Judith S. Wooster, “Choosing Materials for Teaching about the Columbian Quincentenary,” Social Education 56 (1992): 244-47.

8. See Linda Levstik, “Historical Narrative and the Young Reader,” Theory Into Practice 28 (1989): 114-19; Linda Levstik, “Building a Sense of History in a First-Grade Classroom,” in Jere Brophy, ed., Advances in Research on Teaching, vol. 4 of Case Studies of Teaching and Learning in Social Studies (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1993), 1-31; and B. VanSledright and Jere Brophy, “Storytelling, Imagination, and Fanciful Elaboration in Children’s Historical Reconstructions,” American Educational Research Journal 29 (1992): 837-59.

9. C. Thorne, Bird Woman and Flaming Hair (Chicago, Ill.: Child Craft, 1968).

10. Brophy and VanSledright.

11. See Karen D. Harvey, Lisa D. Harjo, and Jane K. Jackson, Teaching about Native Americans, Bulletin No. 84, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1997); and D. Reese, Teaching Young Children about Native Americans, ERIC Digest EDO-PS-96-3 (Urbana, Ill.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, 1996).

12. D. Ogle, “K-W-L: A Teaching Model That Develops Active Reading of Expository Text,” Reading Teacher 39 (1986): 564-70.

13. For more about the generation and use of such assessment data in teaching elementary social studies, see Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, Powerful Social Studies for Elementary Students (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996).


Jere Brophy is University Distinguished Professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Laura Docter Thornburg and Bruce VanSledright for their assistance in data collection and analysis, and June Benson for her assistance in manuscript preparation.