Friday, November 10, 2006

Thanksgiving Lesson Plans

Below is a post from back in September that I'm repeating today. Instead of the problematic "Thanksgiving Pilgrims and Indians" lessons, get the book I describe below and try some of the lessons from that book. If it is too late for this year, get it NOW so you'll be ready to do something different next year.

Native Americans: Lesson Plans

With Thanksgiving approaching, teachers across the country are getting ready to teach children about Native Americans. Unfortunately, far too often, November and Thanksgiving (and Columbus Day) are the only times of the year that Native peoples make an appearance in the curriculum. That is not "best practice!" I urge teachers to teach about American Indians throughout the year. Here's one book to help you do that.

A terrific resource for early childhood teachers is Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms, by Guy W. Jones and Sally Moomaw.

Published in 2002 by Redleaf Press, the book has a lot to offer. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:

"Throughout this book, we have often relied on outstanding children's literature, usually by Native authors, to introduce positive, accurate images of Native peoples to children. It is our view that, with the possible exception of classroom visits by American Indian people, excellent children's literature is the most effective way to counter deeply held stereotypes and help children focus on similarities among peoples as well as cultural differences. The literature serves as a catalyst to extend related activities into other areas of the curriculum."

And here's an excerpt from Chapter 1:

"Omission of Native peoples from the curriculum, inaccurate curriculum, and stereotyping all amount to cultural insensitivity. This is heightened, however, when well-meaning teachers introduce projects that are culturally inappropriate."

Jones and Moomaw go on to discuss projects such as feathers and headdresses, peace pipes, totem poles, dream catchers, sand paintings, pictographs, rattles, drums, and brown bag vests.

Chapter 2 includes a lesson plan called "Children and Shoes" that uses Bernelda Wheeler's Where Did You Get Your Moccasins? and Esther Sanderson's Two Pairs of Shoes. It includes suggested activities in dramatic play (Shoe Store), math (Shoe Graph) and science (Shoe Prints), all of which convey similarities across cultures.

Chapter 6 is about the environment. Featured are two of Jan Bourdeau Waboose's books, SkySisters and Morning on the Lake. In the "not recommended" section that closes each chapter, this chapter says it is not recommended to ask children to make up Indian stories, and explains why.

As a former first grade teacher, I highly recommend this book to anyone working with young children. It is available from Oyate for $30.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Guest post: Kara Stewart, "Children's Books about Thanksgiving"

I am a teacher. I am also Native American (Sappony). I’m very lucky that my principal and lead teacher are supportive of me in that they are quite willing to listen to my views on teaching to and about Native Americans and act accordingly.

Recently, many colorful, attractive-looking books were put on display in our elementary school’s teacher resource room, available for check out to teachers as great books to read aloud during November. Many of them had the usual Thanksgiving scenes and theme on the cover.

Upon reading several of them, I began to feel uncomfortable. I had a feeling that several of them would be on Oyate’s “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving” list. Sure enough, they were. But I felt I needed to give more solid reasons for removing them from the resource room than “they are on Oyate’s Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving list” and “the Indian teacher in the school is offended by them”. Often, it is difficult to articulate feelings of discomfort or offense, and present them in a way that others will understand, and also tell why those feelings have surfaced. I needed some help – something to give me more specifics, “hard data” almost, or other opinions to think about, especially the opinions of those that have critiqued many books like this.

So I did some digging. Oyate also has a section on their site called “Books to Avoid”, which you can find from the home page (left side bar, last choice). But none of the ones I wanted were listed (there are in-depth reviews of very common books, such as The Indian in the Cupboard, The Courage of Sarah Noble, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, Little House on the Prairie, The Sign of the Beaver and more).

Also on the Oyate site, again under “Resources,” there is a link to Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving” (see the Longer Version) by Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin. I found this document very helpful and enlightening. I read it carefully to get a sense of what is a myth about Thanksgiving, and what is more historically accurate. As it turns out, much of what we accept and were taught about “The First Thanksgiving” simply is not historically supportable. Much of it simply is not true.

The Deconstructing article, in addition to giving the more likely historical facts and the reasons for them, also provides quite a few quotes from books on the “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving” list as specific examples of part of the reason why those books are not recommended. Most of the books that were put out in our teacher resource room fell under this category – historically inaccurate - in addition to having other problems.

What we were taught about “The First Thanksgiving” and what many of us have inadvertently perpetuate in our students and even our own children seems to be a sort of mishmashed conglomerate of ideas that have been taught as ‘the way things were’ to students for many, many years. Much of that mishmash is made up of stereotypes of Native Americans. These stereotypes lead many Native Americans to be uncomfortable and offended with the “traditional” way Thanksgiving is presented to students. Many of the books were also written from very Eurocentric viewpoints, as if the Europeans’ version of events is the only true version, as if there was no thriving society in America before they came, as if the Indian viewpoint does not matter enough to write or consider. In other words, the books are “whitewashed.” In addition to that, in many instances, the historical inaccuracies also amount to ‘whitewashing’ – for example, an innocuous sounding, “The ‘Pilgrims’ found corn” covers the more historically accurate version which amounts to that the Europeans took the Indians’ cached corn in addition to items from a child’s grave and things from two Indian homes, all with no restitution. See the Deconstructing article for more on this point.

Several examples of Eurocentric writing that perpetuate stereotypes stood out to me. In The First Thanksgiving by Linda Hayward, the ‘Pilgrims’ spend 30 of the 48 pages in this book being afraid of the Indians. The book is peppered with phrases such as,
“They’ve been warned that Indians may attack them.”
America looks wild and strange. Is it safe? Are Indians hiding in the forest?”
“Suddenly they see Indians! But the Indians are frightened and run away.”
“They know the Indians are watching them. They can see smoke from their campfires. They can hear them in the woods. A guard is posted day and night.”
“The Indians must not know how few Pilgrims are left.”
“Indians are sighted nearby. They come closer and closer. Then one day an Indian walks right into the settlement. The children are terrified. But the Indian smiles and says, ‘Welcome’. His name is Samoset. He speaks English! The Pilgrims ask Samoset many questions. They give him presents. They want to trust this friendly Indian. Samoset comes back with an Indian named Squanto. He speaks even better English!”
The book then goes on to give an unrealistically oversimplified (and inaccurate) version of how, after that, the ‘Pilgrims’ and Indians were friends. (Read the Deconstructing article to find out why I put ‘Pilgrims’ in quotes.)

In addition to the extremely condescending tone of the book towards Native Americans (“He speaks even better English!”) and general feeling it leaves me with (Indians being akin to wild dogs that run and hide in the forest) is a clear message that Indians are not to be trusted. “They want to trust Samoset” (but can’t because he’s an Indian?). That is what will be passed on to every child that hears or read this book. They may not be able to articulate the message they are getting out of this book (just like I couldn’t before I put considerable thought and effort into understanding and articulating why it was so offensive to me), but they will be learning exactly that.

Another example of that sort of unthinking condescension that so frequently peppers the Eurocentric view in these books is in Marc Brown’s Arthur’s Thanksgiving. Let me just say that I love Marc Brown’s books in general and also his character, Arthur. Marc Brown is one of the authors I do author studies on. I promote and read many different Arthur books to my students. So the discomfort and offense this book gave me was doubly disappointing. In the book, Arthur and his pals are putting on the “traditional” Thanksgiving play for school. Through this book, they are passing on historically inaccurate information to kids. Here is a problematic excerpt as Arthur and pals try to decide who will play which part for the play:

Arthur showed Muffy a drawing of the turkey costume.
“Lots of feathers,” said Arthur. It’s a very glamorous role.”
“Yuk! Vomitrocious!” squealed Muffy. I should be the Indian princess. I have real braids."
“Brain, I’ve saved the most intelligent part for you," explained Arthur.
“No way will I be the turkey,” answered Brain. "I'll be the Indian chief."
Which leaves at least three impressions: 1) that there are “Indian princesses,” 2) “Indian princesses” all have braids, and 3) that a turkey is more intelligent than an Indian, since Brain assumed that Arthur was talking about the turkey when Arthur said he had saved the most intelligent part for Brain.

Jean Craighead George is another of my favorite authors. But her book, The First Thanksgiving is full of historical inaccuracies, many of which whitewash the situation. But her last sentence of the book is the killer, to me. She refers to Plymouth Rock and then says, “It is the rock on which our nation began.”

Excuse me? America did not begin until the ‘Pilgrims’ arrived? America had no cultures, societies, nothing until the ‘Pilgrims’ arrived and there was supposedly a Thanksgiving feast with the Indians? This is an obvious example of Eurocentric writing discounting any view but that of Europeans. It is highly offensive to those of us who are Indian or part Indian. It should be highly offensive to everyone since incorrect information has been passed along to all readers.

Some may say that I am overly sensitive to this topic in my reactions to the above examples of stereotypes and Eurocentric writing. I encourage you to substitute similar analogies in the above examples using “African Americans” instead of “Indians.” Did you try it? Sound a little fishy? Substitute in your heritage group for “Indians.” Starting to smart a little?

Now add to that a big theme that is based on historical inaccuracies – inaccuracies about a series of events, inaccuracies about your heritage group (as well as stereotypes), and inaccuracies about the supposed ‘culminating’ event. Starting to feel uncomfortable? Perhaps a little offended?

Let’s take it a step further. Let’s teach all of that about your heritage group – the stereotypes, the inaccuracies, the whitewashing – to kids as the truth. Let’s make school plays out of it and teach it as if it were fact. And then let’s continue to believe it and teach it and give life to it as adults despite many of your heritage group’s objections, and despite the availability of resources and information on how to teach accurately, non-offensively, and not inadvertently.

And now I can say that I understand why those books were on the “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving list from Oyate.

*It should be noted that the list of “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving” is not exhaustive, which is why we all need to read critically with an understanding of historical accuracy as well as the issues of Eurocentrism and stereotypes. Oyate also has a list of References/Recommended books.

Kara Stewart

Edited on July 23, 2015, to update links.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

James Rumford's Sequoyah: The Cherokee Man Who Gave His People Writing

[Note: This review is used by permission of its author. It may not be published used elsewhere without permission of the author.]


Rumford, James, Sequoyah: The Cherokee Man Who Gave His People Writing, illustrated by the author and translated by Anna Sixkiller Huckaby (Cherokee). Houghton Mifflin, 2004; unpaginated, color illustrations; grades 1-4.

On a family road trip to California to visit the redwood trees called Giant Sequoia, a father relates the story of the origins of the Cherokee syllabary and the perseverance of its creator, Sequoyah. Sequoyah is portrayed as an otherwise ordinary man, a metalworker, who undertook the daunting task of setting speech to paper so that the Cherokee language would not “fade away.” Neither ridicule nor harassment from his contemporaries—not even the destruction of his home by arson—could stop Sequoyah from creating the syllabary widely used in Cherokee writing today.

Rumford’s text, reminiscent of traditional storytelling, is concise and evocative. Each paragraph in English is followed by a parallel in Cherokee by Anna Sixkiller Huckaby. The book design, format and illustrations are a thing of beauty and perfectly complement this story within a story. The tall, slim format and mostly dark brown and forest green accents honor both the stately Giant Sequoia trees and the man, Sequoyah, whose name they bear. The bold-lined artwork—done with ink, watercolor, pastel and pencil on drawing paper adhered to a rough piece of wood, then “rubbed” with chalk and colored pencil—remind one of 19th-Century woodblock prints. The Cherokee writing serves both as an example of what Sequoyah accomplished, and as a beautiful design element that completes the wholeness of the book.—Beverly Slapin

Monday, November 06, 2006


Editor's note on July 1, 2022: Broken links are now fixed. We are grateful to readers who let us know about typos and broken links. --Debbie

Native Perspectives on Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War

Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War
Recently, someone asked if I had read Nathaniel Philbrick's book, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. I have not, but there is an article about it in Indian Country Today. The article, "Correcting history: Telling 'our' story" is by Paula Peters, who is Mashpee Wampanoag. For those of you interested in a Native perspective on Philbrick's book, take a look. It was posted November 3rd, 2006 in the Front Page section on the on line paper.

Also in Indian Country Today is an article about a forum, "Forum examines colonization mythology" that took place at U of Massachusetts, Boston, on October 10th. Philbrick was one of the participants. The moderator, Joan Lester, posed these questions: "Are historians obliged to represent all participants? Lester asked. Where does an author go when there are no written sources? Does the reader have a responsibility to develop the critical thinking skills needed to recognize bias? And how do authors and readers move beyond longstanding stereotypes and misconceptions to a fuller, more accurate and respectful telling of the American story?" Both articles are helpful as we think about the ways children are taught about Thanksgiving, and the ways that story is told in children's books.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Teaching about American Indians: "You don't want us to do anything!"

I'm getting a few private replies to my post asking teachers to think critically about using traditional American Indian stories as a model for a writing activity. One person said that while she has learned a lot from what I've been sharing on the blog, she is getting a little tired of my critiques. It seems that I can find something wrong with every lesson or activity on American Indians teachers do, or every children's book they use. One person, in a comment, said I am losing credibility with readers of the blog.

I can see why someone would feel that way. October and November are months when Native American content is very visible in schools across America. I've discussed problems in dressing up as an Indian at Halloween and problems in depictions of characters dressing up as Indians in favorite children's books. And, I've been critical about the ways that Native peoples are, and are not, presented in lessons about Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving.

So, it seems like a bit much right now.

But maybe it is because there IS so much wrong with the way we are teaching children about American Indians.

I don't think any given teacher is a bad (or racist) person because their lessons provide a heroic or romantic picture of America's history. Most likely, that teacher didn't get much in the way of critical thinking about teaching this topic in his/her teacher education program. Maybe there haven't been opportunities to think about this, either, once the teacher entered the classroom.

Teachers are overworked and underpaid. They and the profession often get little respect. Most are doing the best they can.

I'm not asking teachers to immediately drop all the lessons you've been doing for years. Meaningful change takes time. If a teacher elects to modify a lesson, it takes time to figure out what to do instead. That means a lot of time for research, thinking, writing, locating and developing new materials for their students.... Time most don't have, because they're struggling to do a good job as it is, given things like No Child Left Behind.

What I'm doing with this blog is offering some ideas for teachers to think about. My hope is that this will lead to change. I know some teachers can make changes right away, and others will modify something more slowly, and still others will think over my input and then reject what I offer because it is counter to the way they view things.

I have confidence in education and in educators. Teachers are caring people. They care about the children they teach. They want to do a good job, and if they're reading this blog, they are interested in thinking about the ways they teach about American Indians. I offer this blog to help them.