Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Those Thanksgiving Lesson Plans

Newspapers everywhere carry articles about Thanksgiving and how it is taught in local schools. To protect the students who played roles in the specific article I'm referring to, I will not identify the school or the newspaper in which this particular article appeared.

As said many times on this blog, I respect teachers for the work they do. I do not mean to embarrass or humiliate them for that work, but I do mean to encourage them to think carefully about the ways they teach their students about "The First Thanksgiving" and American Indians.

(1) A boy is selected to portray "Chief Sun Slayer" for the school's "Thanksgiving feast." He wears a headdress of multicolored paper feathers.
  • "Sun Slayer": To me, this is obviously a made-up name intended to convey power, but why would ANYONE want to slay the sun? The headdress of multicolored paper feathers is probably the Plains style, not one that the Powhatan people would have used. Instead of providing students with substantive information, these children's stereotypical views of Indians as monolithic people who all wore Plains style attire, are affirmed.
(2) The kids in the class dressed as Indians, and then the girls voted for the boy who would be their chief. The teacher says "That's how it's really done." and "The women choose the chief."

  • Later in the article, the teacher notes they have been studying the Powhatan tribe. According to Helen Rountree, a scholar of the Powhatan Indians of Virginia, women do not vote in tribal matters. And, chief's inherited their positions through the mother's line. In some tribal nations, women play an important role in selection of leaders, but not the Powhatans.
(3) The children made their costumes out of construction paper, and chose an Indian-style name for themselves. The name they chose is "Powhatan Pee Wees."

  • Choosing Indian names is a popular activity, whether it is for a "tribe" or for oneself. People try to be clever in choosing these names. You may want to read "A Brief Digression about Naming" in the review of Ann Rinaldi's book at the Oyate website. Scroll down to get to that part of the review.

(4) This classroom study included information about wampum, which the article says is "a prized string of beads." The kids dressed as Pilgrims make wampum; the Indians make maps, and they trade.
  • People commonly think wampum was used as legal tender. According to George R. Hammell of the New York State Museum (excerpts from Encyclopedia of North American Indians, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, page 662-664),
"...wampum's use as legal tender was its least culturally significant fucntion; for them wampum was and still is both the medium and the message of social communications."
Hammel goes on to say:
"The most culturally significant function of wampum among the northeastern woodlands Indians has been its use, in the forms of strings and belts, in rituals of kindship affirmation and rituals of condolence."

(5) This classroom study emphasizes "when the European settlers traded wampum (a prized strong of beads) for land, the American Indians thought the Europeans understood that the land was not theirs alone, but for both peoples to share."

  • Native peoples were intellectuals (not naive, simple-minded or primitive savages) who engaged in diplomatic relations with the English and the French. I will see if I can find a book to recommend, one that can be used in elementary school classrooms, that portrays these relationships with honesty to all involved.

This lesson is only one of the many being taught this month. I urge teachers to revisit their Thanksgiving lessons, and change them. Start doing it now, so you'll have a year to work on changing the lessons, lest your students end up in a college class where they read Lies my Teacher Told Me and remember the instruction they had in elementary school. Come to think of it, every teacher should get the book, read it, and use it to create lesson plans for next year.

Monday, November 20, 2006

I'm adding a few images to the site. See, for example, the covers of Jingle Dancer and Where Did You Get Your Moccasins.

Addition to my post on November 18th: I have added a link to Waller Hasting's page about Where Did You Get Your Moccasins? Hastings is a professor at Northern State University in South Dakota.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Muscogee (Creek) author, Cynthia Leitich Smith

One of my favorite authors of children's books with Native characters is Cynthia Leitich Smith. I've written about her books here before. Whenever I do a workshop for teachers, her Jingle Dancer is one I highlight.

Her website is terrific, and you can read an interview of Cyn at downhomebooks.com.

If you're someone who gives children books during the holiday season, order several copies and give them to teachers and children, and teenagers and librarians, and grandparents whose grandkids visit them...

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Early childhood classrooms generally have a "Show and Tell" segment of the day during which one child talks about a special item he or she has brought from home. Bernelda Wheeler's Where Did You Get Your Moccasins? captures one of those moments.

The book is meant for reading aloud in an early childhood classroom. Here's an excerpt:

"Hi, Jody! Where did you get your moccasins?"

"My Kookum made my moccasins for me."

"Who is your Kookum?"

"My Kookum is my Grandmother. She made my moccasins for me."
This pattern continues throughout the book. With each page turn, Jody provides a little more information about his Native culture. The illustrations, by Herman Bekkering, depict a modern day elementary school classroom with low bookshelves. The children, Jody included, are shown wearing jeans and t-shirts. These pictures convey something a lot of children need to know: Native people are part of today's society.

Published in Canada, please order it from an independent bookstore! Or---order two copies. One for yourself, and one to give to a teacher!

[11/20/06 Note: For more information about the book, visit Waller Hasting's webpage.]

Friday, November 17, 2006

Marlinda White-Kaulaity's article in ALAN REVIEW

Thanks to Cynsations (Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog), I learned of an article I want to highlight today. The article is in ALAN Review and is written by a Dine (Navajo) woman in the PhD program in Curriculum and Instruction at Arizona State University.

Here's the first paragraph from "The Voices of Power and the Power of Voices: Teaching with Native American Literature":

"The weight and thickness of Mike's new literature book in English class intimidated him. He opened the book searching for Native American writers whose work he loved to read. Sherman Alexie was his favorite. As he fingered through the table of contents, all he found was a poem about Hiawatha, two stories in the mythology chapter, and one short story in the "Other Literatures" chapter in the back of the book. Sighing heavily, he gazed out the classroom window feeling bored and knowing that this English class would be more of the same. He closed his eyes and his mind, questioning the system and wondering to himself, 'Why can't we read the good stuff in English class?'"

Fortunately, the article is on-line in pdf. A sidebar features comments from Simon Ortiz, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Laura Tohe, all of whom give us outstanding literature about American Indians.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Joseph A. Dandurand's Please Do Not Touch the Indians

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


Dandurand, Joseph A. (Kwantlen), Please Do Not Touch the Indians. Renegade Planets, 2004. 55 pages, grades 7-up

There’s a moment between sleeping and wakefulness that we’ve all experienced: a moment of transformation that may manifest itself as a falling tree, or a visit from a long-dead relative, or rain on the roof, or a memory too horrible to speak of; a moment of transformation in which time is timeless and reality is surreal.

Wooden Indian Man and Wooden Indian Woman sit on a bench in front of Hank Williams Sr.’s Bait and Gift Shop. Visited by Sister Coyote, Brother Raven and Mr. Wolf, Wooden Indian Man and Wooden Indian Woman exchange stories that weave forward, back and around, the way good stories do. Stories about a kind-hearted woman who wouldn’t hurt a fly and a two-headed baby in a jar, a boat full of fish and a salmon who seeks to seduce a raven, a grandma besieged by prankster grandchildren and a life bet for one ugly horse. And the Tourists who think that Wooden Indian Man and Wooden Indian Woman are as they appear to be.

As Tourist transforms into a movie director shouting orders—“Let’s get some close-ups of those bleeding scalps. I want them to drip and drip…I want to see the children and the women screaming and crying.”— Wooden Indian Man and Wooden Indian Woman tell the lives of Indian people, speak their truths to power. Bitter, painful memories of all the indignities, large and small, heaped upon the people over the generations. And the children, slaughtered on the “battlefield,” the survivors raped and abused at residential school, left to the ravages of alcoholism and suicide. Now the children—Sister Coyote, Brother Raven and Mr. Wolf—jump and transform themselves into the sacred Beings they are. And Wooden Indian Man comforts Wooden Indian Woman:

Rest now. We will come back tomorrow and see what spirits come to visit us. Go to sleep, my love. Sleep and dream of days like this. Days filled with wonderful and alive spirits that play and sing, forever…

—Beverly Slapin