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Teaching Kids the Wonderful Diversity of American Indians

The awareness teachers and parents need to teach Head Start children about American Indians accurately and respectfully.

By Bernhard Michaelis, Founder, Native Child

This article is reprinted from Children and Families, Vol.XVI No.4 , Fall 1997, the journal of the National Head Start Association. Children and Families is published quarterly for NHSA members. For information on joining NHSA, please call (703) 739-0875.


"Don't yell like a bunch of wild Indians!" shouts a mother trying to quiet her children in a supermarket in Cortez, Colorado. A long- time American Indian Head Start teacher from the Navajo Reservation is standing close by, feeling hurt and insulted. "We would never say that to our Head Start kids," the teacher explains. "But I hear things like that all the time when I go shopping off the Reservation." The teacher's frustration is understandable.

Throughout our lives, we have been bombarded by stereotypical portrayals of American Indians. Books, television programs, movies, and toys tend to depict Native Americans as oversimplified feather-wearing characters. Inaccurate and often offensive representations of American Indians are deeply rooted in the American consciousness.

As a result, we have become desensitized to terminology and imagery that is offensive to American Indians. For example, we might not think it's odd to ask our kids to line up Indian file. And we might not see any reason our kids shouldn't dress up and play Indians.

American Indian children who frequently encounter stereotypical images of their cultures are hindered in developing a feeling of pride in their heritage and a healthy self-image. When asked, there are American Indian preschoolers who will say they are not Indians. Why? Because they have already learned from popular movies and cartoons that Indians wear feathers and face paint and live in tipis and carry tomahawks. Preschoolers don't look like that, so they don't consider themselves Indians.

Young children believe what they see and hear. As Head Start teachers, we are in an excellent position to teach children factual information about American Indians and at the same time dispel any myths or stereotypes that have entered our classrooms.

American Indians are not all the same

One of the most popular misconceptions about American Indians is that they are all the same - one homogenous group of people who look alike, speak the same language, and share the same customs and history. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Although American Indians make up less than one percent of the U.S. population, American Indians represent half of the nation's languages and cultures. This statistic may seem incredible, but remember that American Indians were the soul inhabitants of this continent until Europeans arrived only five centuries ago. Before that, Native Americans had thousands of years to migrate across the country in small groups and, in relative isolation from one another, develop unique cultural identities.

Today there are about 500 American Indian tribes, each with its own language and cultural traditions. The Diné Nation (Navajo) is by far the largest, with 170,000 members. Other large tribes include the Oglala Sioux, Cherokee Nation, Blackfeet, Fort Apache, Gila River, Hopi, Papago, San Carlos Apache, Rosebud Sioux, and Zuñi Pueblo. Almost half of all tribes have fewer than 1,000 members, but they still have their own unique identity. From tribe to tribe, there are large differences in clothing, housing, life-styles, and cultural practices.

Sadly, these differences are not appreciated by most non-Native Americans, because the rich diversity of American Indians is not reflected, nor is it presented accurately, in readily available teaching materials, popular entertainment, and children's toys. Toy manufacturers typically misrepresent American Indians by creating toys that, for example, mix the tipi from the Plains culture or the totem pole from the Northwest Pacific Coast groups with the Navajo rug, loom, or desert plants from the Southwest groups.

The truth about feathers and headbands

We are all familiar with the popular use of a headband with one feather or a headdress containing numerous feathers (warbonnet) as symbols for Indian imagery. And many of us encourage our children to make feather headbands - after all, we made them when we were kids. But these headbands are a trite representation of American Indians.

Historically, eagle feathers were worn only by certain members of the Plains cultural groups who had distinguished themselves as worthy of such adornment. Feathered headdresses were not worn as everyday clothing, but rather for special ceremonial occasions. Today, feathers still carry highly religious meaning in most tribes. Making feathered fans in tribes for Pow Wows and religious ceremonies is accompanied by appropriate prayers and songs. Handling feathers is not taken lightly.

Despite the purpose of feathers in certain American Indian cultures, it might seem a little severe to stop making feather headbands in Head Start classrooms. After all, it's just a fun way of introducing our children to Indians. But as teachers, would we put a Catholic priest's robe in the dramatic play area?

Strategies for teaching about American Indians accurately

American Indian tribes all over this country are putting enormous effort into preserving, restoring, and reviving their cultural heritages for future generations. There are specific strategies Head Start teachers and parents can embrace to assist in this process.

For instance, instead of teaching children that "Indians lived in tipis," which incorrectly implies that all American Indians lived in tipis, explain that different tribes lived in different dwellings. For example, the Pueblo Indians lived (and some still do) in terraced-style stone and adobe houses. The people of the Northwest lived in spacious buildings made of wood. Some tribes in the East lived in huge longhouses constructed of tree poles and bark. The Navajos (Diné) of the Southwest lived in hogans, a hexagon tree pole structure covered with mud. Still others lived in structures adapted to nomadic life, using wooden poles and coverings available from the surrounding environment.

Today, of course, Native Americans live in houses, apartments, and mobile homes. It is important to point this out to children and teach them about the many aspects of life among contemporary Native Americans. Otherwise, children may think that Indians are extinct.

When referring to one tribe or Indian nation, use its correct name: Cheyenne, Hopi, Apache, and so forth. Choose books that focus on a single tribe. Make sure that the depiction of housing, life-style, clothing and so forth is accurate for the specific group.

Make sure your books portray Indians in a respectful manner. For example, books with illustrations of animals, cartoon characters, or children at play wearing headdresses, pipes, or other items sacred to American Indians are especially offensive and disrespectful. Such illustrations do not encourage us to view Native Americans as human beings.

When evaluating books, toys, or play activities, ask yourself these questions: Is there anything that would embarrass or hurt a Native child? Is there anything that would foster stereotypical thinking in a non-Indian child? If you're not certain which materials are appropriate, use it as a learning opportunity: Contact American Indian Head Start staff members to expand your knowledge.

In the dramatic play area, dress your American Indian dolls in the same clothing as your other dolls. Bring out native clothing, such as moccasins, dancing shawls, and so forth, only on special occasions.

When purchasing posters and pictures of children for your classroom, choose ones with multiracial groups, including American Indians. This will help give the children, staff, parents, and visitors in your Head Start classroom a greater appreciation for the wonderful racial diversity of Americans.

At Thanksgiving time, shift the focus away from reenacting the First Thanksgiving and decorating your classroom with Pilgrims and Indians. Instead, focus on things the children can be thankful for in their own lives. Teaching about American Indians only at Thanksgiving exclusively from a historical perspective will promote the idea that they exist only in the past.

Increase your knowledge about American Indians by looking for Pow Wows - social or religious gatherings - in your area. Contact the organizers and ask whether you and your students can attend. Invite American Indians to your classroom to discuss their culture. Treat them as educators for your children, not entertainers.

A challenging and rewarding undertaking

Not all American Indian communities have had the same historical experience and because each American Indian is unique, what may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another. For example, most Native Americans find the popular Head Start song "Ten Little Indians" offensive. But others don't mind it. One American Indian Head Start teacher sings an enlightening variation of the song in which she adds verses for "Ten Little Mexicans," "Ten Little African-Americans," and so on.

The diversity of American Indian cultures is so grand that it may be challenging to comprehend. Yet, as educators and parents, it is our responsibility to try. Just the act of trying to inform ourselves about American Indians is a great sign of respect. And using your new knowledge and common sense will go a long way in helping us successfully determine how to best teach our children about American Indians.