©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Authentic Voices: Advice for Incorporating American Indians and Alaska Natives in the Elementary School Curriculum



Frances V. Rains and Karen Gayton Swisher

It has been said that you cannot teach what you do not know. It is also a common adage that teachers teach as they have been taught. Both statements have implications for the approach to teaching about Indians or Native Americans, this nation’s indigenous peoples, which has remained largely unchanged since perhaps the 1920s or 1930s when the practice of teaching about them through an “Indian” unit began. The “Indian” unit remains one of the more popular ways to teach elementary age children about Indians or Native Americans, usually without regard for what and when the material is developmentally appropriate.

As indigenous educators who are former elementary teachers and current teacher educators, we have been asked to express our views on teaching about American Indians and Alaska Natives in the elementary schools. We think there are some very fundamental questions that all teachers and teacher educators must ask regarding the presence of the United States of America’s indigenous peoples in the elementary school curriculum, particularly in the social studies. We believe that we should be asking what should be taught, when it should be taught, and how it should be taught. Perhaps most importantly, we should be asking, Why are we teaching about “Indians” or “Native Americans?”


Eliminating Stereotypes

We strongly believe that an “Indian Unit” or a “Native American Unit,” usually taught in November, is not the best way for children to gain knowledge about and understanding of indigenous peoples. If we could get one point across, it would be that students should not learn about American Indians or Native Americans only in November. More importantly, teachers must rethink the practice of teaching about American Indians and Alaska Natives in short isolated segments or units of instruction, especially in the early grades.

Nearly twenty years ago, Patricia G. Ramsey in “Beyond Ten Little Indians and Turkeys: Alternative Approaches to Thanksgiving,” pointed out that the song “Ten Little Indians” objectifies Native peoples, as do “I is for Indian” and “E is for Eskimo” alphabet posters.1 She described “First Thanksgiving” enactments with “Indian Headdresses” and “Pilgrim Hats” as events that reinforce dehumanized stereotypes of Native peoples. She pointed out that Thanksgiving is celebrated as a universal day of rejoicing—an event that demonstrated the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship between the European settlers and indigenous peoples—when, in fact, it disrupted a way of life. She believes that children need to be aware of the experiences of all groups involved in order to understand the significance of historical events, and she offered guidance to teachers about observing Thanksgiving by asking three questions:

1. Do the proposed activities in any way support or reinforce negative and dehumanized images of Native Americans?

2. Do the activities imply or confirm historical misconceptions about the relationship between Europeans and Native Americans?

3. Are the experiences of all the people involved realistically represented?

Ramsey concluded with several excellent alternative approaches to the typical “Pilgrims and Indians Thanksgiving Feast,” which can be found in her article.

We agree with Ramsey and believe that the traditional (not thematic) unit approach to teaching about indigenous peoples objectifies American Indians and Alaska Natives. We ask teachers to think about this question: What other people are taught about as the subject of units? Our experience and observations suggest that most units are about events or things or animals, not people. We believe that if units are taught around themes, such as giving thanks, then teachers can introduce the different and similar ways in which people (in the community, the country, or the world) behave in formal situations within their societies.


Names Give Meaning

Readers will notice that we use the term “indigenous.” If children were taught what this word means, it would clear up many misconceptions about the collective terms for native peoples of the Americas—Indians, American Indians, Native Americans, and Native (or, in Canada, Indian, Aboriginal, or First Nations). It would also help them to understand what sets indigenous peoples apart from the rest of this nation’s “minority” population. Land, and one’s relationship with the land, was, is, and will be a defining point for indigenous peoples (including Native Hawaiians).

At some point in the upper grades through high school, students should study about “Indian” people as indigenous people in the context of pre-1492 American history. They should learn about sovereignty and treaties as the basis for the political relationship between indigenous nations and the federal government. American Indian and Alaska Native tribes are the only ethnic groups to have a constitutionally-based relationship with the federal government. Culturally, American Indians and Alaska Natives fit into the study of cultures in the multicultural curriculum. However, a unique political relationship based on sovereignty and treaties defines “American Indian and Alaska Native” relative to the U.S. Constitution, and explains why reservations exist for some (but not all) and why tribal governments were acknowledged by the United States.

Young children are not developmentally able to understand such abstract concepts, but surely by fifth or sixth grade, children should begin to understand that there are three sovereigns (federal, states, and tribes), not two (federal, state), when they study governments in or of the United States. Facts about tribes or nations should be required knowledge, just as we learn facts about states (i.e., how many, capitals or headquarters, geographic land bases, governing systems, economic resources).

In the United States, “American Indian” and “Alaska Native” are the legislative terms used to describe indigenous peoples as a collective group. American Indians are the indigenous peoples of the contiguous forty-eight states. Aleuts, Eskimos (Inupiat and Yupik), and Indians (Athabaskan, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian)—who are all indigenous peoples of Alaska—are not American Indians but are collectively known as Alaska Natives.2 The term “Native American” emerged as ethnic studies programs developed on college campuses in the late 1960s. The term includes Native Hawaiians, who are also indigenous to the land boundaries of the United States by virtue of statehood.

The term “American Indian/Alaska Native,” or the shortened term “Native,” is used by the National Indian Education Association and other groups such as the National Congress of American Indians. In the United States, as in Canada, the term “indigenous” is regularly used, especially by those who reject the association with European explorers implied in the words “American” and “Indian.” There is no general agreement among indigenous peoples regarding the collective term used as a name for themselves; however, all groups are very clear about the specific name for themselves as a people.3 The people of the Navajo Nation in the southwestern four-corner states refer to themselves as Diné. The people in Arizona (and Mexico) formerly known as Papago prefer to be called by their name for themselves, and are now officially known as Tohono O’odham. Several “Sioux” tribes have renamed their reservations, deleting the name Sioux and changing it to reflect their Lakota, Dakota, or Nakota designation.

In sum, it is important for teachers and students to be aware that “Indian” and “Native American” are not the only terms used to name indigenous peoples of North America. This discussion about names is an important illustration of how complicated the study of indigenous peoples of the United States can be, and why, as indigenous educators, we reject the generalized approach that many textbooks and other materials present for teachers to use.


An Expanding View of Native Americans

Everyone knows that the histories of indigenous peoples precede American history; the history of this country did not begin in 1492. More often than not, the presentation of “Indian” history in the context of American history is inaccurate and/or incomplete. For example, what was happening with American Indian tribes during the Civil War period?4 The long walk of the Navajo, the Sioux uprising in Minnesota, and the Sand Creek massacre are just three significant events that occurred during that time period, in addition to the actual involvement by individuals and groups in the Civil War. Most textbooks fail to mention the activities of indigenous peoples during this time period.

When we examined the “expanding horizons “(also referred to as “expanding communities” and “expanding environments”) approach presented in most elementary social studies textbooks and curricula, we wondered where teaching about “Indians” or “Native Americans” fit into the kindergarten-primary grades curriculum? If the movement is from concrete to abstract—or from the egocentrism of self to family to neighborhood to community, and so on—then where does a unit on “Indians” fit into this scheme, especially if indigenous people are not a part of the child’s physical environment?

We question whether young children are capable of understanding past to present as it relates to “Indians.” We understand that in kindergarten, when holidays play an important role in the school year, the study of Indians is inevitably connected with the Thanksgiving holiday. We believe that many of the stereotypes children carry with them result from the concrete fun-filled activities (e.g., making houses, clothing, and food) that early childhood and primary teachers use to teach about a topic that is replete with abstract concepts (such as that “Indians” represents the past and the present) and includes numerous cultural manifestations.

There are many well-intentioned people who create curriculum materials for use in teaching about Indians or Native Americans. We examined several curricula, and one in particular that attempts to bridge the past-to-present concept for young children. The authors were careful to point out that one of the most common of all stereotypes is the feathered headdress of the Plains Indian portrayed in photographs and on television. Despite efforts not to reinforce stereotypes, one of the activities was for children to make a headdress! There was no text explaining that all Indians do not wear headdresses, and that children certainly do not.

Teachers must ask themselves, What do I really want children to learn from a concrete activity? For example, would teachers continue to encourage children to make and wear headbands encircled with feathers if it were known that (1) Indian children did not wear feathers until they earned them as young adults, (2) there is variance in who can wear feathers, (3) there is variance in the number and way in which feathers are worn, and (4) all tribes did not wear feathers in their hair.

Ramsey reminds us that young children “can enjoy exploring tools, foods, and clothing of many different groups but are unlikely to understand the relationship between traditional and contemporary lifestyles or to comprehend the impact of geography.”5 Furthermore, Ramsey tells us that young children focus on one attribute at a time in making sense of their world. Choctaw, Japanese, or Norwegian, therefore, have little meaning for children, beyond the association with the concrete curriculum activity.

We suggest that teachers begin with the present and, using children as a point of reference, begin to discuss similarities and differences among children as they learn about each other. For example, how does a child’s own family give thanks? How do other families give thanks? We believe learning should focus on the values expressed in the different ways and times people give thanks, rather than the “cute” commercial holiday materials and activities. By doing so, we begin to plant the seeds of tolerance and respect for differences.


In Conclusion

The purpose of this article was to raise questions about what, when, how, and why we teach about American Indians and Alaska Natives in our nation’s schools. If the goal of social studies is to study human experience and behavior in order to produce competent, responsible, and well-informed citizens, then we must do that in every sense of the word. Well-informed, thoughtful teachers will teach children to be well informed and thoughtful. We offer the following recommendations to assist teachers and teacher educators to gain more knowledge:

1. Teaching about native or indigenous peoples (and people of other cultures) should be incorporated into the curriculum naturally as we teach about family and school, neighborhoods, communities, regions, our country, hemispheres, and the world.

2. Teaching about native or indigenous peoples should not occur as the topic of a separate unit.

3. Teachers should use critical thinking skills to question the authenticity of textbook and curriculum materials, as well as information on the Internet.

4. Teachers must be willing to ask native people to help. If contact with native people locally is not a consideration, or the department of education does not have information, please contact us directly; we will help you find authentic sources and resources.

As we near the end of another century of misunderstanding American Indian and Native American peoples, it is time for educators to join our efforts and re-examine the curriculum issues of, what, when, how, and why we should teach about “Indians.”



1. Patricia G. Ramsey, “Beyond Ten Little Indians and Turkeys: Alternative Approaches to Thanksgiving,” Young Children 34 (September 1979): 28-32, 49-52.

2. Dr. William Demmert, who is Tlingit and Sioux, provided this information and recommends for further reading The Native People of Alaska by Steve J. Langdon and Alaska Native Land Claims by Robert D. Arnold.

3. Their name for themselves often means “the people.”

4. For a unit on American Indians and the Civil War period, contact Karen Gayton Swisher, Haskell Indian Nations University, Box 5014, 155 Indian Avenue, Lawrence, KS 66046-4800.

5. Patricia G. Ramsey, Teaching and Learning in a Diverse World: Multicultural Education for Young Children (New York:Teachers College Press, 1987), 10-11.


Teaching Resources


In addition to books and material published by various tribes, the following sources are recommended for finding authentic information:

American Indian Digest: Facts About Today’s American Indians. Phoenix, AZ: Russell Publications, American Indian Marketing & Data Resources. (Address: 9027 North Cobre Drive, Phoenix, AZ 85028-5713.)

Native Education Directory Organizations and Resources for Educators of Native Americans and various Digests published by ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. Charleston, WV: Appalachia Educational Laboratory. (Address: P. O. Box 1348, Charleston, WV 25325-1348.)

Rethinking Columbus, a special edition of Rethinking Schools. (Address: 1001 East Keefe Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53212.)

Slapin, Beverly and Doris Seale, eds. Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Philadelphia, New Society Publishers, 1992. (Address: 4527 Springfield Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143.)

Swisher, Karen Gayton and AnCita Benally, eds. Native North American Firsts. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. (Address: 835 Penobscot Building, Detroit, MI 48226-4094.)



The following web sites have information useful to classroom teachers:

Techniques for Evaluating American Indian Web Sites at http://www.u.arizona.edu/~ecubbins/webcrit.html

Selective Bibliography and Guide for “I” Is Not for Indian: The Portrayal of Native Americans in Books for Young People at http://www1.pitt.edu/~lmitten/ailabib.htm

American Indian Library Association at http://www1.pitt.edu/~lmitten/aila.html




Frances V. Rains (Choctaw) is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction and teaches social studies at The Pennsylvania State University. Karen Gayton Swisher (Standing Rock Sioux) is chair of the Teacher Education Department at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.