I guess most everywhere now children are back in school and, as teachers, it’s time to reflect on what we are teaching. It’s particularly important when the topic is history. Recently, the online magazine, Indian Country Today Media Network, published an article by Christina Rose titled, “10 Things Teachers Should Never Do When Teaching Native Kids.” Since most teachers don’t know whether or not they are teaching Native children, I would suggest the ten things pertain to ALL CHILDREN.
To rehash her points here is counterproductive, if you can’t find the article, email me and I will send it to you. Having said that, it is important to talk about a few of the mistakes which frequently occur during first semesters. You know, that’s the time of year we celebrate Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Native American Heritage Month. Of course, these errors don’t just happen in school. They happen everywhere untrained educators try to explain American Indian history and culture.
If you are lucky enough to have Native children in your class, and know it, Ms. Rose’s first point is appropriate. Never ask your Native child to speak for their Race. Being singled out in class could be embarrassing for the student, but it is also important to remember that there are 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States and all have different beliefs and cultures. It is unlikely one child could speak for all of them.
If you know the students tribal affiliation, and you have received permission from the parents, and the child is willing, it would be okay for him or her to speak about that tribes culture. The Virginia Department of Education did an excellent job of using a ten year old boy to speak about his tribal customs and the existence of other tribes in the state.
Another of Ms. Rose’s issues was, Don’t have students choose Indian names for themselves. This might seem like a harmless activity and an excellent way to explain the naming process, but it is an extremely personal ceremony performed by a person chosen by the child’s parents. A Menominee parent from Wisconsin, Ritchie Plass, after hearing from his daughter that she had been asked to choose a Native name, wrote a poignant letter to the teacher and school board about the ceremony. The letter is part of the article and should be read.
In short, if you don’t understand American Indian history and culture, don’t opt for stereotypes. Contact someone who can help. In states with tribes, call the tribal information office and ask if they could provide a speaker. In Georgia, contact the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns. Google them or email me and I will give you an email address.
A few years ago, James Loewen wrote a book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. It is not on my recommended list because it involves much more than American Indian history, but I highly suggest every parent and teacher read it. Remember, Thanksgiving didn’t happen the way it is taught in our schools, and Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. Don’t compound the problem. Do the right thing, Teach the Truth.