Nov 9, 2010

Native American Literature

November is here and many people associate Thanksgiving with Native American Indians. Also, this is time of year when schools start their Native American units. Growing up in Oklahoma, we had a lot of curriculum and activities with an Indian theme. Growing up, I never realized how offensive some of these lessons and activities were. You may wonder (or maybe not) about my last name, Bigheart. I am proud to say that it is Osage Indian. I could go on and on and tell you about the Osage's and how proud I am to have kids that belong to the tribe, but that would take too long. So, I am going to talk a little about Native American Literature for children and young adults, and Thanksgiving*ish activities that can be offensive.

Ever heard of the "Ten Little Indians" counting song? Yeah, not okay. Use an animal instead. 

Sitting "Indian style" on the floor is not okay. Sit on your pockets or criss-cross applesauce. 

I is for Indian and E is for Eskimo. I can think of 109 other things that start with I and E. 

Children making and wearing feathered headbands out of construction paper is not okay. I know, you see it at almost every school, but this implies that Indians "dress up" or wear costumes. That isn't the case. Costumes are worn when you pretend to be someone else. The clothing (even headpieces) Indians wear can be for religious or ceremonial purposes - not for pretending. Same thing goes for chest plates and arm cuffs.


Children (and adults) painting their face. Markings on the face can mean a multitude of things depending on the tribe. Again, this is not part of a costume. 

The Indians didn't exactly "give gifts" to the Pilgrims. No need to make this an activity.

Like all multicultural literature, Native American literature should be authentic and accurate. We shouldn't put all Indians into one category. Tribes and their people are not all alike. Not all Indians lived in tee-pees. Not all Indians have long hair. Not all Indians painted their faces and wore feathers. When reading books with Indian characters, look to see if there is a variety in skin tone like you see with other types of people. Some tribes were/are matriarchal. Look to see if women have a role in the story - you know, besides cooking or nursing children.   

Not all stereotypes are negative. Even good stereotypes (all Asians are smart) have no place in authentic multicultural literature. Not all Native Americans are "one with the Earth" or deep, spiritual people. When reading about Indians, see if the author uses this hook with no end in sight. 

Thank you for listening to my rant! There are many wonderful activities and lessons that teach youth about Native Americans of the past and present. Quality resources can be found at your library and all over the web. In addition, there are many wonderful contemporary Native American books out there. Not every story with an Indian needs to take place during the 1800s. Indians are alive and well today! Find stories with contemporary Indian characters.

Feel free to share your thoughts! 

Happy Reading! 


  1. Great post. I too am part native america - along with lots of other things... My great grandma on my mother's side was 100% Native American. However, unfortunately the tribe information has been lost with time. My mother has tried to figure it out before with no luck. I think she has it narrowed town to two possible tribes. But still no beans.

  2. This is a very refreshing post. Unfortunately, much of what gets taught to children about Thanksgiving is completely erroneous and offensive. I used to work in a school and, every Thanksgiving, out came the ridiculous and horrifying pictures of Pilgrims and Indians for the kids to color. I've found that children are really receptive to the truth about Thanksgiving when adults respect them enough to give it to them.

  3. Thank your for writing this post. I am a high school English teacher and live in Maine, where there is a rich history of Native culture. In addition to this history, there are many hundreds of Native peoples living in our community. My husband and his family are Micmac and are alive and well. I cringe when I see all of the ignorant and offensive projects and old tag lines that teachers use with their students around this time of year.

    Native Americans are alive and well. Why not include some in our Thanksgiving festivities? We cannot go back and change the past, but we can change the fact that we perpetuate untrue and demeaning stories about whole tribes of people. Why not change the focus of Thanksgiving to one of cultural awareness and acceptance and learning? I am sure that there are Native peoples all over the country who would be willing to work with teachers to create meaningful lessons around actual customs and traditions.

    I could go on and on, but I won't. Thanks for bringing this subject to light and for being so open about your observations and feelings.

  4. Thank you for the comments! I tried to take my snide edge off of this post, but it is something I do feel strongly about. When I see people dressed up as Indians for Halloween, I am speechless. Well, not entirely true. Would people dress up like Martin Luther King Jr. or a slave? Or a person from the Orient or an Orthodox Jew? No way!!!! (thank gosh) Being a Native American is not a lifestyle choice like a cowboy. Okay, breathe...

    I hope to recommend quality Native American literature in the next months. Unfortunately, there isn't an abundance of contemporary reads in this category. There are some good ones though! Stay tuned....