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9 Ways to Lift Up & Learn from Indigenous Voices

Illustration by Michaela Goade (Tlingit-Haida) from We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom (Anishinabe/Metis; enrolled member, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe)

Note: This summer I read the middle grade novel, Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis (Umpqua) with Traci Sorell (Cherokee Nation). In the book, ten-year-old Regina, enrolled in the Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde, moves with her family from the reservation to Los Angeles when their tribe is terminated by the federal government. There Regina must navigate the celebration of Halloween for the first time, and soon after, her new school's Thanksgiving program. I was struck by the difficulty of having both holidays, with all their problematic rituals and potential for harm to Native children, coming so close together. Regina's story, based on Charlene's own experiences, inspired me to do the research for this post. My thanks to author Traci Sorell for reviewing the content. Any errors are my own.

November is National Native American Heritage Month. This month, “the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the rich ancestry and traditions of Native Americans.“ It’s a time to honor Indigenous history and heritage, yet it overlaps with a season of events that have long been marked by harm directed at Native people. Columbus Day with its glorification of colonization and genocide, only now gradually being replaced with Indigenous Peoples Day; Halloween with its inappropriate costumes still being sold (just try Googling "Indian princess costume"); and Thanksgiving with its classroom enactments of the myth of friendly pilgrims sharing a peaceful feast with the Indians, together form a kind of gauntlet of historical and current misrepresentation, microaggressions, and worse.

How can we do better?

The antidote to this toxicity and false history is to be found in the work of Indigenous educators, activists, authors, and illustrators. Any parent, librarian, or teacher who wishes to observe these holidays with children in ways that do not cause harm can use these resources created by members of tribal nations. (And this is just a selection; there are many more available online.) You'll find information to design activities that honor Native history, cultures, and contributions with accuracy, authenticity, and respect.

Build Background Knowledge/ Decolonize Our History

  • 1. Use the resources of the National Museum of the American Indian: Native Knowledge 360: Essential Understandings "is a framework that offers new possibilities for creating student learning experiences. Building on the ten themes of the National Council for the Social Studies' national curriculum standards, the NMAI's Essential Understandings reveal key concepts about the rich and diverse cultures, histories, and contemporary lives of Native Peoples."
  • 2. Read The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) and share it with school-age children.

The people shall continue


by Simon J. Ortiz and Sharol Graves

"The People Shall Continue was originally published in 1977. It is a story of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, specifically in the U.S., as they endeavor to live on lands they have known to be their traditional homelands from time immemorial. Even though the prairies, mountains, valleys, deserts, river bottomlands, forests, coastal regions, swamps and other wetlands across the nation are not as vast as they used to be, all of the land is still considered to be the homeland of the people"--Foreword

Cross Group Oppression & Resilience

  • 3. Read An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh) and share it with middle/high school students.

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People "Spanning more than 400 years, this classic bottom-up history examines the legacy of Indigenous peoples’ resistance, resilience, and steadfast fight against imperialism. Going beyond the story of America as a country 'discovered' by a few brave men in the 'New World,' Indigenous human rights advocate Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reveals the roles that settler colonialism and policies of American Indian genocide played in forming our national identity."

Read & Purchase Books by Native Authors

  • 4. Choose winners of awards given by Indigenous organizations. Every other year the American Indian Library Association announces the winners of the American Indian Youth Literature Award, which "identifies and honors the very best writing and illustrations by Native Americans and Indigenous peoples of North America. Books selected to receive the award present Indigenous North American peoples in the fullness of their humanity."

Change the Script/Do Holidays Differently

Some general resources:

"Tips for Teachers: Developing Instructional Materials About American Indians", prepared by Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh) and Jean Mendoza, on the website American Indians in Children's Literature, is a single-page document that can be reprinted and shared.

The Native Land website and app is offered by Native Land Digital, "Indigenous-led, with an Indigenous Executive Director and Board of Directors who oversee and direct the organization." The app features a digital map which uses geolocation to identify the history of the land you're standing on. Read "Are You Planning to Do a Land Acknowledgment?" by Debbie Reese for tips on avoiding common pitfalls and making the acknowledgment meaningful.

  • 7. Learn the history of Columbus Day and participate in honoring Indigenous Peoples Day.

Fourteen states, the District of Columbia, and many more smaller jurisdictions "now observe Native American or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in place of or in addition to Columbus Day." Renee Gokey (Eastern Shawnee/Sac and Fox/Miami) and Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian), write about the change in their article, "Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Rethinking How We Celebrate American History," from the National Museum of the American Indian. The piece includes a history of Columbus Day (which has only been a nationally-observed event for 86 years) and a number of resources to explore.

Renee Gokey also wrote, "Five Ideas for Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020," in the online version of the Smithsonian Magazine.

Each year, Teaching for Change holds an Indigenous Peoples' Day Teach-in.

  • 8. Avoid costumes that demean, misrepresent, or appropriate Native cultures at Halloween.

Writer David Robertson (Cree) explains why cultural appropriation in costumes is so harmful in a 2019 article, "My Culture is Not Your Or Your Kids’ Halloween Costume."

A page on the website of Citizen Potawami Nation, "‘Native American’ Halloween costumes debase cultures and communities," discusses the impact of and the history behind harmful stereotypes. See also their short list of alternative costume ideas.

“When kids — little Native boys and girls — see what you are doing, it impacts the way they see themselves. It impacts the way their classmates see them.”

Citizen Potawami Nation Cultural Heritage Center Director Kelli Mosteller
  • 9. Share accurate information at Thanksgiving.

Dr. Star Yellowfish (Keetoowah Cherokee), Director of Native American Student Services for Oklahoma City Public Schools, has worked with colleagues to create an accurate Thanksgiving curriculum. This 2017 interview in the online newsletter of the National Education Association highlights her work: "Native educators say Thanksgiving lessons can be accurate, respectful, and still fun—here’s how." It includes tips for what to do and what to avoid.

Here's the link to the curriculum, created by the Native American Student Services Office: A Story of Survival: The Wampanoag and the English A Thanksgiving Lesson Plan Booklet from a Native American Perspective (Oklahoma City Public Schools)

The National Museum of the American Indian has created a resource packet, "American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving," for teachers of grades 4-8.

"1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving" by Catherine O'Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac (Abenaki), is a guide for grades 5-8 (can be adapted for older or younger students). It was published by the Indian Education Division, Montana Office of Public Instruction, to accompany the book, 1621: A New Look At Thanksgiving (National Geographic) by the same authors.

And finally, here's a book to share with children -- in classrooms, libraries, or at home -- to celebrate all we have to be thankful for.

We are grateful: Otsaliheliga


by Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac

"The word otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) means “we are grateful” in the Cherokee language. Beginning in the fall with the new year and ending in summer, follow a full Cherokee year of celebrations and experiences. Written by a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, this look at one group of Native Americans is appended with a glossary and the complete Cherokee syllabary, originally created by Sequoyah."

Beautiful Life

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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