Teaching Native Peoples

by | Oct 1, 2019 | Social Studies | 0 comments

It’s fall! I love fall – the weather starts to cool down (slowly, but I’ll take it.) It is also time for one of my favorite social studies units, the one on Indigenous peoples.

Teaching about Native peoples unit can be rich and full of culture – or it can be full of stereotypes and activities that we did as kids: dressing up as Pilgrims & Natives and a re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving. 

If we aren’t cautious, our students will leave our classroom with the misunderstanding that Native peoples are a part of our history, but not a part of our present. 

I did some research and found a few very helpful sites when it comes to how to teach Indigenous peoples in your classroom in a way that is respectful, informative, and leaves no doubt about their place in both the past and in today’s society. 

Teach The True Facts Of The First Thanksgiving

We know that history is not always a picture-perfect recollection of events. Honestly, history is far from that. It is imperfect and messy, full of injustice and pain. 

But for some reason when we teach about the first Thanksgiving of our new world, we make it seem as if everyone was happy and the weather was beautiful and the food was bountiful. 

We know that was not the case.

In Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong Maya Salam writes about the timeline, the food, the native Wampanoag times involvement and more. She does her best to set the record straight. 

Kid’s National Geographic does a good job of portraying the realities of the temporary peace between the Puritan separatists and the native Wampanoag tribes of the area. 

While the two groups did join together to celebrate, the peace did not last longer than one generation. Our lessons typically end in a sentence or phrase that leads closely to “they all lived happily ever after”.

Scholastic has an online interactive lesson about the first Thanksgiving that contains letters from both settlers and Wampanoag alike. https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/activities/teaching-content/first-Thanksgiving/

Plimoth Plantation has some amazing resources for your classroom. Your students become historians, discovering the true facts of the first Thanksgiving. https://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-teachers

Teach More Than Native People’s Past

Too many students believe that Native peoples are a thing of the past. Sarah Shear said in her interview with the Pacific Standard that “They were coming to college believing that all Indians are dead”. In this article Shear goes on to discuss how few students are taught the history of Indigenous people and not the current issues they face. 

If our students are taught the history of Native peoples in the same manner that they are taught the history of King Henry VIII, they will have the misconception that like King Henry VIII, Indigenous people are history. https://psmag.com/social-justice/u-s-schools-teaching-children-native-americans-history-95324

Decolonize Your Classroom

Without recognizing it, our classrooms and conversations can be full of small details that enforce the colonial-centric view of Native peoples. The people at Teaching Native American Histories created a Prezi full of tips on how to decolonize your classroom. https://prezi.com/pgep_dtkrqyj/10-tips-to-decolonize-your-classroom/

Along with this Prezi, there is also a Prezi full of key concepts for teaching Native people’s history. 


Teaching Native American Histories is created by educators and the University of Massachusetts and is full of really good content and lesson plans designed specifically for teaching Indigenous people’s history. https://teachnativehistories.umass.edu

Do The Research

The Smithsonian Magazine just published an article about a new curriculum that is designed to teach students more than the cookie-cutter version of Native peoples. You can read that article here https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/inside-new-effort-change-what-schools-teach-about-native-american-history-180973166/

Have An Understanding Of What Tribes Live In Your State Today

Once you teach your students that Native people are not a thing of the past, they will be curious to know which tribes still live in your state. You might be surprised to see how many reservations are around you. You can use this interactive map to see the tribes that were originally in your state and those that still live there today. http://www.native-languages.org/states.htm

Remember Your Role

As a teacher, it is your responsibility to open the eyes of your students to the world in all its beauty, ugliness, pain, joy, and growth. We do our students a disservice by not giving them as much information as possible about the world they live in. Use this next month to teach your students the real truth of Native peoples and to appreciate their rich cultures. 

Do you have any great lessons or resources for learning about or teaching about Native peoples? I would love to hear about it!

Are you looking for resources for Thanksgiving? I can help!

Plimoth Plymouth Plantation Webquest Thanksgiving

Over twenty plus years, my educational career has spanned four continents and two states, as well as eight grade levels!

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