7 Things Teachers Need to Know About Native American Heritage Month

November is National Native American Heritage Month. The article below was originally posted on Indian Country Today on November 12, 2014. It contains tips & best practices that can be used in the classroom throughout the year. 

Without guidance, too many teachers will celebrate Native American Heritage Month in the only ways they know how: paper bag vests and feathers, classroom pow wows, and discussions on who Indians were.

Only a handful of states have an Indian Education Department, and mainstream teachers outside of those states may rely on their own familiar sources for Native history, culture and perspective. Without training, teachers are left to their own devices when it comes to assessing curriculum and lesson plans. Without any guidelines to appropriate and authentic Native curriculum or cultural differences, tribal lifeways are too often stereotyped in the classroom.

The vast majority of Native students, 90 percent, attend public schools. Native student drop out rates are almost three times higher than they are for white students, and that number can increase significantly depending on the school district. Research shows Native students stay in school when their culture and history are relevant in the classroom.

Even for teachers with the best intentions, great material may be hard to recognize without understanding the basics: worldview, sovereignty, circular thinking, true history. Teachers who teach local history with facts that include real outcomes will find their students more engaged than when they teach solely from history books.

Teachers can’t know what they don’t know, and if they have never spent time immersed in any Native culture they won’t know the effects of colonization or of ongoing issues in U.S. and Native politics. If teachers do not know the very basic and important facts, they cannot teach Native studies from an unbiased point of view.

Parents: feel free to print this out and give it to your kid’s teachers.

Here then are 7 things teachers need to know:

Assessing Materials

When looking at teaching materials, make sure Native resources were used. Check the bibliography! Read why the “dead and buried approach” doesn’t work in “Countering Prejudice against American Indians and Alaska Natives through Anti bias Curriculum and Instruction.”

Cultural Identity in Education

Diana Cournoyer, National Indian Education Association program coordinator, said, “Indian students need to know where they come from and have a sense of pride, of individualism in saying, I am Oglala, as opposed to, I am Native American. What does your history hold, as a tribal nation battling the U.S. government?” Cournoyer said research shows Native students are more likely to succeed in their education when their history and culture is taught. With 566 federally recognized tribes, language differences and cultural practices unique to each tribe, Cournoyer said, “Teachers need to take several steps to determine who the students are in their school system and ask, ‘How do I honor them?’”

100-Plus Years of Inappropriate Curriculum

Formal Indian Education began in 1892 with the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1892. The 1928 Merriam Report detailed the abysmal conditions of the Indian boarding schools and the lack of educational opportunities for Native children. In 1968, the Kennedy Report called Indian education a “national tragedy,” and the 1991 Indians Nations At Risk Report called for more Native teachers, more tribal language and cultural activities in the classroom, and appropriate curriculum.

Good Curriculum Abounds when you know where to find it. Be careful with curriculum developed by colleges that are not based in Indian country. Many are still culturally biased towards colonization. Contact local tribal offices for questions about classroom materials. While you’re at it, invite some speakers!

Ask Native Students To Participate

“It’s not about making your students stand out in the class but about inquiring in your own research as a teacher,” Cournoyer says. “Bring the students in on the side, tell them, ‘Hey we are going to be addressing your Native nation issues or the Southwest region,’ ask those students for stories, elders, and for their parents to participate. Give those students a sense of home.” She also said teachers can reach out to American Indian Centers in urban areas. “We have a lot of Native centers that are not tapped, these are a resource teachers are not aware of.”

Don’t Speak Only About The Past

There are plenty of issues facing Native people today, and teachers can bring that into the classroom as well. The nation-to-nation aspect is often overlooked because it is not familiar to a lot of teachers, and it is also controversial. “A lot of teachers think treaties were a long time ago. There’s not an awareness we still have to honor treaties. And even though new treaties are not being made they are still being broken,” Cournoyer said. “Sovereignty is a word a Native child learns early on.”

Bring Oral Traditions Into The Classroom

There are several websites that will help bring a Native perspective to life through video interviews and documentaries. Native histories are passed through stories, often by elders, and videos and audio tapes bring oral traditions into the classroom.

Check out the Native American Heritage Month Resources for Teachers to see a ton of links teachers can use to help them along the way.

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