Teaching About Native Peoples

by | Oct 26, 2021 | Educational Resources, Social Studies, Teaching Strategies | 0 comments

I have always been fascinated by people. I love talking to people and learning about their culture. Most students also find it interesting to learn about other countries and cultures. Teaching your class about Native Americans can be a unit that everyone enjoys.

But when was the last time you examined your unit and updated it? Best practices for teaching about other cultures, including Native Americans, have changed a lot over the past decade. These changes allow teachers to present cultures from the point of view of the people, rather than from an outside perspective.

Before teaching your unit on Native peoples, take the time to review and update your lessons. Here are a few things to look for:

Tribal Names

Many tribal names are actually words that were Anglicized or used by Europeans, not what the people called themselves. Be sure to refer to tribes with the correct names. Ex. Dine instead of Navajo, Haudenosaunee instead of Iroquois.

Native Peoples Still Exist


If you look at lessons on Native Americans, they often discuss Natives as if they lived in the past. This can lead students to think that Native peoples are extinct, which is far from the truth. 

Be sure to talk about Native peoples in the present and discuss how tribes live today. Some people still live in traditional homes, like the Pueblo, while others have adopted modern homes.

When discussing culture traits, double check that the information is accurate. Use trustworthy sources for your information. Many tribes have websites with information about their history and culture.

If possible, contact a local tribe and arrange a guest speaker. My students always learned the most from guests, and it is a great way to learn about local tribes.

Culture is Not a Costume


There is a fine line between honoring a culture and treating it like a costume, and cultures can have different points of view on what is acceptable.

When I visited Japan, my hosts were excited to teach us how to wear a kimono. They enjoyed sharing their culture with people who wanted to learn.

On the other hand, dressing students in feather headdresses is considered insulting. Earning a feather is an honor, and someone must serve their community to be given one. Having students dress up with feathers diminishes the meaning of the feathers and war bonnet.

Furthermore, people often stereotype clothing worn by Native peoples, as if they all dressed the same. In reality, there were hundreds of tribes in the Americas before colonization, each with its own culture.


Teach History Accurately

Textbooks often portray historical events as a forgone conclusion or explain them from a very sanitized point of view. Other lessons make Native peoples the aggressors, when that wasn’t true. 

For example, if you ask people about the dangers on the Oregon Trail, many people will cite attacks by Native Americans. In reality, only 400 settlers were killed by Native people between 1840 and 1860 – while about 20,000 died of disease. (History.com)

Native Americans were mistreated often by settlers, and the U.S. government broke numerous treaties with tribes. It’s important that we acknowledge how Native peoples were treated and how that treatment affected them. Historical events should be discussed truthfully and factually.

Native American Integrated Bundle

Are you teaching a unit on Native peoples to upper elementary students? My Native American Integrated Bundle integrates social studies standards with language arts. The bundle includes:

  • Informational texts on Native people of the United States.
  • Paired Passages relating to human-environment interaction and Native cultures.
  • A Research Project that allows students to plan their dream trip around the country.
  • Exit Tickets to check students’ understanding or for spiral review throughout the year.
  • Clip Cards to review information on Native American cultures.

Looking For Resources To Save You Prep Time?

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

Read More

Join my monthly email list and get this Reading Comprehension FREEBIETeaching-Ideas-4U-Amy-Mezni-Reading-Comprehension-Questions-cover