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

Resources for Teaching about Native Americans

Karen Harvey

As the conclusion to his recent study of how the negative perceptions of American Indians held by elementary school children change over time, Jere Brophy offers a number of suggestions for teaching about this subject (see “Elementary Students Learn about Native Americans: The Development of Knowledge and Empathy” in this issue of Social Education). Three important recommendations are:

1. Children should study 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.

2. Teachers should ensure 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.

3. Children’s literature used in the classroom should be historically and culturally accurate and include American Indian perspectives as well as Euro-American perspectives.

This article suggests strategies and resources that may help teachers to supplement their knowledge of American Indian peoples and their histories, cultures, and diverse viewpoints. It also provides a brief list of children’s books that present the perspectives of Native Americans on their lives, cultures, and historical events.


Curriculum Issues

To teach about American Indians with accuracy and respect, it is necessary to address some important curricular issues.

First, the curriculum should not merely be a hodgepodge of fascinating facts based on either teacher interest or available materials. Those concepts or generalizations that are important should be clearly articulated. They should then be taught in ever-deepening complexity throughout the school experience. When multiple perspectives are important, these perspectives should be purposefully present in social studies instruction, including the use of literature, from kindergarten through high school. This is the particular responsibility of curriculum committees, whether at the district, school, or grade level. An unfocused curriculum in which outcomes are not specified usually results in an incomplete or fragmented understanding of American Indian people and their cultures.

Second, children begin at a very early age to “walk in another’s moccasins.” This perspective-taking is an integral function of their cognitive development. The ability to understand the perspective of others is also a necessary skill for citizens in a democratic society. Teaching children how to seek the perspective of another and to understand the concept of historical bias should be an important part of the curriculum.

One example of how this fundamental concept might be introduced is through Marcia Sewal#146;s Thunder from the Clear Sky. Part of a series of three books written about the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag, and the first Thanksgiving, this book presents the differing stories and perspectives of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. The book is well researched and provides an example of “good intentions” gone amuck when people are unable to see another’s perspective. Its value, however, is dependent on the way it is used; it can be a powerful tool only when teachers take the opportunity to examine the concepts of historical perspective, ethnocentrism, and culture.

Third, the treatment of American Indian religious beliefs and customs is an important issue. Brophy points out that American Indian spirituality and religious practices may seem “strange or pointless” to young children. Religion or spirituality are areas that teachers can and should address in only the most general terms—or not at all.

Think for a moment of the difficulty and appropriateness of attempting to explain Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, Christian Science, or any other spiritual practices to young children. Not only are these abstract ideas difficult to comprehend, but many children are taught to conclude that a particular religion—the belief system of their own family or culture—is right and probably “best.” The religious practices of others may be easily misunderstood by younger students, and this is particularly true the more unfamiliar the religion.

The Hopi Snake Dance, the Sun Dance, the Ghost Dance, kachinas, or the healing power of Navajo sand-paintings have meanings that may elude young children. Furthermore, the importance of religion or spirituality lies not in rationality or sensibility but in belief, faith, tradition, and symbolism, making very abstract concepts even more difficult to explain to children. Less complex ideas such as giving thanks for food or rain, praying for a good harvest or a successful hunt, or being respectful of all of creation are more appropriate for the classroom. For teachers who do want to introduce Indian religions into the classroom, some useful resources are listed in the resource section of this article.


Improving Teacher Knowledge

There is no better way to improve teaching about American Indians than by increasing one’s own knowledge. Teachers armed with new and more accurate knowledge about American Indian peoples and their diverse cultures are better able to select good instructional materials and reject those that are inadequate. Informed teachers will bring Indian people and their historical and contemporary perspectives into the classroom. They will challenge stereotypes with facts and generate respect for American Indian people and cultures.

The following suggestions for professional development activities may help teachers to better prepare themselves for teaching about Native Americans.

> Study. Take classes offered by colleges, universities, and museums. Request practical in-service workshops for teachers.

> Travel. Explore reservations, tribal resources, and historical sites.

> Read. Focus on reading books by American Indian authors, striving to obtain a variety of perspectives on any given tribe, incident, or period of time.

> Subscribe. Invest in subscriptions to American Indian newspapers and journals that present contemporary American Indian perspectives, issues, and daily lives.

> Consult. Seek the views of American Indian authors, historians, artists, and tribal/community members in person, when possible, or electronically via the Internet.

> Volunteer. Donate your services to American Indian agencies, organizations, or causes.


Teaching Resources

Basic Reference Books for Teachers

Armstrong, Virginia Irving. I Have Spoken: American History through the Voices of the Indians. 6th pr. Athens, Ohio: Swallow, 1989.

Beck, Peggy V., Anna L. Walters, and N. Francisco. The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life. Tsaile, Ariz.: Navajo Community College, 1992.

Burton, Bryan. Moving within the Circle. Danbury, Conn.: World Music Press, 1993.

Deloria, Vine J., Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1988.

Johansen, Bruce E., and Donald A. Grinde, Jr., eds. The Encyclopedia of Native American Biography: Six Hundred Life Stories of Important People from Powhatan to Wilma Mankiller. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr., ed. 500 Nations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Kavasch, E. Barrie. Enduring Harvests: Native American Foods and Festivals. Old Saybrook, Conn.: The Globe Pequot Press, 1995.

Smithsonian Institution. All Roads Are Good: Native Voices on Life and Culture. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1994.

Waldman, Carl. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. New York: Facts on File, 1988.

—————. Atlas of the North American Indian. New York: Facts on File, 1989.


Books on Teaching about Native Americans

Bruchac, Joseph. Roots of Survival: Native American Storytelling and the Sacred. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1996. All of Bruchac’s books are recommended.

Caduto, Michael J., and Joseph Bruchac. Keepers of the Earth. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1988.

Harvey, Karen D. Storytellers: Literature by and about American Indians. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, in press.

Harvey, Karen D., and Linda D. Harjo. Indian Country: A History of Native People in America. 2d ed. Golden, Colo.: North American Press, 1998.

Harvey, Karen D., Linda D. Harjo, and Jane Jackson. Teaching about Native Americans. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1997.

Stott, Jon D. Native Americans in Children’s Literature. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1995.


Books for Children

Books on Native American Religions

Bonvillian, Nancy. Native American Religion. New York: Chelsea, 1996. For young adults.

Charging Eagle, Tom, and Ron Zeilinger. Black Hills: Sacred Hills. Chamberlain, S.D.: Tipi Press, 1987.*

Liptak, Karen. North American Indian Ceremonies. New York: Franklin Watts, 1992.

—————. North American Indian Medicine People. New York: Franklin Watts, 1992.

Miller, Jay. American Indian Festivals. New York: Children’s Press, 1996.*

Sita, Lisa. The Rattle and the Drum: Native American Rituals and Celebrations. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook, 1994.

*American Indian authors


Children’s Books

Armstrong, Nancy M. Navajo Long Walk. Niwot, Colo.: Roberts Rinehart, 1994.

Begay, Shonto W. Visions and Voices across the Mesa. New York: Scholastic, 1995.

Brill, Marlene T. The Trail of Tears: The Cherokee Journey from Home. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook, 1995.

Bruchac, Joseph. The Arrow over the Door. New York: Dial, 1998.

—————. Children of the Longhouse. New York: Dial, 1996.

—————. Eagle Song. New York: Dial, 1997.

Bunting, Eve. Cheyenne Again. New York: Clarion, 1995.

Dorris, Michael. Guests. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

—————. Morning Girl. New York: Hyperion, 1992.

—————. Sees Behind Trees. New York: Hyperion, 1996.

Echo-Hawk, Roger C., and Walter R. Echo-Hawk. Battlefields and Burial Grounds: The Indian Struggle to Protect Ancestral Graves in the United States. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner, 1994.

Goble, Paul. Brave Eagle’s Account of the Fetterman Fight. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1992/1972.

—————. Red Hawk’s Account of Custer’s Last Battle. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1992/1969.

Hunter, Sara H. The Unbreakable Code. Flagstaff, Ariz.: Northland, 1996.

Matthaei, Gay, and J. Grutman. The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle. Reprint. New York: Lickle, 1994.

Meyer, Carolyn. In a Different Light: Growing Up in a Yup’ik Eskimo Village in Alaska. New York: McElderry, 1996.

—————. Where the Broken Heart Still Beats. San Diego, Calif.: Gulliver/Harcourt Brace, 1992.

Monture, Joel. Cloudwalker: Contemporary Native American Stories. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1996.

Moore, Robin. Maggie among the Seneca. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1987.

Ortiz, Simon J. The People Shall Continue. San Francisco, Calif.: Children’s Book Press, 1988.

O’Neill, Laurie A. Wounded Knee: The Death of a Dream. Brookfield, Conn.: Lerner, 1993.

Sewall, Marcia. Thunder from the Clear Sky. New York: Atheneum, 1995.

Strete, Craig Kee. The World in Grandfather’s Hands. New York: Clarion, 1995.

Thomson, Peggy. Katie Henio: Navajo Sheepherder. New York: Cobblehill/Dutton, 1995.

Von Ahnen, Katherine. Heart of Naosaqua. Boulder, Colo.: Roberts Rinehart, 1996.

Wood, Tedd, with Wanbli Numpa Afraid of Hawk. A Boy Becomes a Man at Wounded Knee. New York: Walker, 1992.


Book Series that Present American Indian Perspectives

Chelsea House

Indians of North America

North American Indians of Achievement

The Junior Library of American Indians


Facts on File Inc.

American Indian Lives Series

Library of American Indian History Series (Young Adults)


Fulcrum Publishers

Books by Michael Caduto and Joseph Bruchac

Books by Karen D. Harvey and Lisa Harjo


Holiday House

First American Series (Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve)

Books by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith on contemporary American Indian children and families


Lerner Publishing

We Are Here: Native Americans Today (American Indian authors)


Roberts Rinehart Publishers

The Council for Indian Education Series



Indian Artist

P. O. Box 5465

Santa Fe, NM 87502-5465

Phone: 505-982-1600

Fax: 505-983-0790

E-mail: 75467.1545@compuserve.com


Indian Country Today (newspaper)

1920 Lombardy Drive

Rapid City, SD 57701

Phone: 605-341-0011

Fax: 605-341-6940



Native American Public Telecommunications

P. O. Box 8311

Lincoln, NE 68501

Phone: 402-472-3522

Fax: 402-472-8675

E-mail: native@unlinfo.unl.edu





Native Monthly Reader (for children)

15061 Adams Drive

Pauma Valley, CA 92061

Phone/Fax: 760-742-4416

E-mail: nmr@pacbell.net


Native Peoples

5333 North Seventh Street

Suite C-224

Phoenix, AZ 85014

Phone: 602-252-2236

Fax: 602-265-3113

E-mail: circulation@nativepeoples.com



News From Indian Country (newspaper)

Rt. 2, Box 2900-A

Hayward, WI 54843

Phone: 715-634-5226

Fax: 715-634-3243



Native American Websites

American Indian Resources



An American Indian Web Page



Canyon Records



National Museum of the American Indian



Native American Authors



Native American Foods



The Native Web



Karen Harvey is the former Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at University College, University of Denver and a consultant to Denver public schools on curriculum about Native Americans. She is the author of many publications on Native Americans, including the NCSS Bulletin Teaching about Native Americans.