5 Ways to Teach Native American History in Your Classroom

November is Native American/American Indian History Month. Genuinely, this is one area of history that I truly enjoy sharing with my students. The beauty of the Native Americans and the beauty of their traditions and culture is breathtaking. The sadness of their history can be overwhelming, upsetting, and sad. This inspired me to share 5 ways to teach Native American history in your classroom.

Without a doubt, It is a history that we need to share with our students. Not a safe, watered-down version of history. An honest and open sharing of history. One that focuses on the beauty of the people and their culture. One that tells what happened to the Native Americans and why they are not found all over the country. Although we honor their beautiful culture in November, learning about their history and traditions year around is imperative, too. I hope that my suggestions on ways to teach Native American history in your classroom will support your teaching.

Sepia colored photo of a Native American man showing a side profile. There is a kerchief tied around his neck and feathers are displayed in his hair.
I am so thankful that photographs like these exist.
A photograph of a Native American woman.  She is facing forward and has a serious, somber expression on her face. She is wearing layers of beads around her neck and a top made out of deerskin.
Simply, breathtakingly beautiful!

A Much Needed Exchange

Last year, I had this “Hmmm, you have a good point there” exchange with a student. I admit, it was a very subtle exchange. Yet, it was one that left an impression on my spirit. It was a moment that truly emphasized the significance of teaching Native American/American Indian history in the classroom consistently.

Me: Teaching about Native Americans and sharing their history and culture.

Sweet Second Grade Boy: Do Native Americans still exist? (Said with great hesitation and uncertainty)

Me: Yes, they “still exist”. (Of course they do– said in my head)

Me: Now thinking about what he asked. It really wasn’t a ” Well, Duh”- question. It was a legitimate wonder.

Self-Reflection is Key When Teaching and Learning

This conversation with him, and the one that I had internally, left me thinking. Why wouldn’t that student have asked me that question? When have I ever encountered a Native American at Publix? Target? Marshalls? Well, the short answer is “never”. And, this is a very sad never. I live in Georgia. The place where Creek and Cherokee Indians once lived. I stand on their land every single day. Yet, there are no Creek or Cherokee Indians present for me to interact with. Not a one. Sad. Disheartening. Upsetting.

Changing the Narrative

So, what can we do to keep their memory, history, and legacy alive? We can talk about them, tell about them, and teach about them to keep their stories alive. We can discuss them in a way that doesn’t make them seem like folklore or people from long ago. Teach Native American/American Indian history in your classroom throughout the year (any time of the year). This will help to make this a reality.

A color photo of a Native American elder dancing.  He is adorned with bright colors and feathers.

Teach Native American History in Your Classroom

First, as you prepare to share the lives and culture of the Native American people, remember to use the appropriate terms. Think, Native American versus American Indian versus Indigenous People. For many native peoples, using the terms Native American or American Indian is a preference. Actually, It is very similar to some Black Americans preferring to be called African Americans, and others connecting more with Black. One of my co-workers is absolutely offended by being called African American. That strikes me as being really interesting. Honestly, I tried to get a thought process behind this view from her. She wasn’t able to articulate it. I understand her preference. In that moment, I didn’t understand her anger and offense.

Think of Your Word Choices and There Implications

Personally, I self-identify as Black. Yet, I prefer for non-Black people to call me African American. Neither offends me. I use them interchangeably when referring to myself. However, I am aware of the feelings of others. I’m sensitive and considerate of others preference to be referred to as one over the other.

Additionally, it is important to remember that being Native American doesn’t necessarily mean “Indigenous”. They are the native, or true, Americans. Indigenous actually refers to populations that are the original inhabitants of a specific geographic region. Technically, this can refer to a variety of groups of people and isn’t solely indicative of Native Americans.

Planning Lessons and Discussions For Teaching Native American History

  1. Don’t participate in cultural appropriation.

One of the most harmful and thoughtless gestures that we can make is to appropriate someone else’s culture and heritage. Don’t dress your students up in headbands and vests. Why would we do this? What does dressing like a Native American have to do with learning more about them? Seriously, what does that mean? Is there a true lesson in this? The short and long answer to these questions is “No”.

That doesn’t teach students about who these beautiful souls are. It teaches that Native American culture can be “put on and taken off” like a costume. I think that it dehumanizes them and makes them seem different, and therefore, undeserving of honor and respect. This can allow us to detach from their humanity, and make it easy for us to dismiss them. Certainly, that isn’t our intention, is it?

If you watch sports, think of all the times that you see “fans” in the stands with their faces painted (“red face”) and wearing headdresses. Hear the “War Chant” of the Atlanta Braves or the Florida State University Seminoles, for example. Should we/they be doing that? Those behaviors were learned- taught. Those individuals feel as if it is their right to dress and “act” like Native Americans. They don’t seem to think that there is anything wrong or inappropriate about it. Do/have our teaching practices played a role in this?

2. Teach students that Native Americans do tasks and activities just like they do.

Teach that Native Americans/American Indians wear clothes just like they do in their daily lives. Really, this may seem like such a random thing to state. However, most of the time we only see Native Americans dressed in what we might call “traditional” dress. Today, they more commonly wear clothing like most everyone else does. Their traditional dress is absolutely glorious. But, it isn’t typically worn today during typical daily activities. With intentionality, share the meaning behind the colors and the face paintings. Share how they honored nature and only used what they needed. Native Americans go to school, read, write, laugh, play, and love just like we do.

A more current photo of a Native American girl.  She is smiling and standing in a desert area.  A colorful blanket is wrapped around her shoulders.
North American, Indigenous teen portrait in front of a Navajo Hogan.

3. Talk about the travesties against the native people.

Truthfully, history can be ugly, but there is beauty in honesty and truth. As we know, many native tribes were annihilated. They don’t even exist anymore. Pure genocide. Native Americans didn’t just fade away from God’s gloriously beautiful world. They were killed. The Native Americans were taken for what they had and for what European settlers wanted. Truly, I can’t quite comprehend why coexistence or we’ll live here, you live there couldn’t have been sufficient. Think of how much land is all around in America. Think of all of that untapped land back 100- 200 hundred years ago. Land as far as the eye can see! There was more than enough for everyone if you really think about it.

4. Show Native American History as Our History

As I shared, Creek Indians and Cherokee Indians were native to Georgia. We teach their culture and lives as a part of our curriculum. Sadly, it still doesn’t seem like enough. I emphasize that they lived HERE, right where we stand. This is their land. The Trail of Tears is also a part of what I teach. It chokes me up every time. I teach it anyway. For me, it’s an honor to tell the story of others. This is why I strive to teach Native American history in the classroom with intentionality.

Their stories, our stories, need to be told. Native American history is American history. It is my history and your history. We should share it honestly and accurately. So, when you see stereotypes and dismissive attitudes or speech, point it out. Stand up to it and correct it quickly. Again, teaching Native American/American Indian history can help combat this by breaking down stereotypes and misgiven information. It helps to demystify the unknown for students (and for us).

5. Research the information that you need to prepare for lessons and conversations.

Here are a few resources that you can use for your own research:

Native American Heritage Month website

Look at the first story that comes up. Did you know that Native Americans served in the US Army? I had no idea!

National Indian Education Association (NIEA)

Digital Lessons from the NIEA

Indian Boarding Schools

This section of the website shares information on the practice of Native American children being sent away to boarding schools where they were indoctrinated with Western culture. Their hair was cut, they were not aloud to speak their native language, and they were taught the Western way of living.

When We Were Alone (Read Aloud)

The impact of the Indian Boarding Schools on the children that were sent there is shared in this sweet story.

Share Native Stories

Share books written by Native American authors. TELL THEIR STORIES- throughout the year.

Add these stories to your toolbox for 5 ways to teach Native American history.

Awasis and the World-Famous Bannock

An image of a book cover for Awasis and the World-Famous Bannock.  A little Native American girl is holding a woven basket as she runs through the forest.

Encounter by Brittany Luby

An image of the cover to the book Encounter. A Native American woman is standing on the shoreline with her right hand shielding her face from the sun as she watches a ship sail towards the shore.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell

An image for the book We Are Grateful.  There are male and female Native Americans walking in a circle around an outdoor fire.  They are wearing colorful clothes.

At the Mountain’s Base by Traci Sorrell

The cover for the book At the Mountain's Base.  There us a large image of an ancestor above a mountain.  They are looking down at the village at the base of the mountain.

Frye Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Mallard

An image of the cover of the book Fry Bread.  There is a Native American lady holding a baby in her left arm and a bowl of food in her right arm.

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom

An image of the book We are Water Protectors.  There is a woman wearing a purple sleeveless shirt and a red skirt.  She is standing in the middle of an ocean wave with the moon behind her.

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne

An image of a non-fiction text about Native Americans/American Indians.  There is a man with two long braids standing and looking down. He has a more serious expression on his face.

I truly hope that something that I shared was helpful or insightful. Feel free to leave a comment to share what benefitted or positively impacted you and your students. Also, share any insights or resources that you have.

Credits and Disclosures

Photos by Boston Public Library on Unsplash

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. If you purchase an item via my shared link, I will receive compensation for the item from Amazon. Additional fees will not be added to your purchase if you use my affiliate link. Thank you for your purchase!

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Hi, I'm Tania!

I help creative and time-conscious teachers plan student-centered lessons that interest and motivate student learning so that lesson planning takes less time and is actually enjoyable! 

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