Telling America’s story means telling the stories of Native Americans

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the rich ancestry and traditions of Native Americans and to reconsider how we teach—and understand—their histories and contributions.

This year is extra special, because we have the wonderful opportunity to applaud the history made on Election Day: On November 6, Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico became the first Native American women ever elected to Congress.

Their election is something we can all take pride in. Not only did it mark a milestone for Native Americans; Davids and Haaland were also part of an enormous victory for women, period. A record number of women (who individually represent all kinds of firsts) will be members of the 116th Congress.

As for Davids and Haaland themselves, they join a long tradition of Native American engagement and activism. From members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who are protesting construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline near their land and water supply, to the groups fighting to make sure Native Americans who live on reservations are not disenfranchised.

“Sometimes, During a Summer Storm, Her Hair Ran with Rainbows,” 1992, Kevin Peters (acrylic on canvas), Nez Perce National Historical Park


There’s much we don’t know about Native American history and activism, however. It is often missing from our history books, history lessons, and dialogue. Even when it is included, it is rarely from the perspective of Native Americans. As educators, we need to be at the forefront of changing that dynamic. You can’t tell an accurate story of who we are as a people, as America, unless Native American history and contemporary life are at the heart of the narrative—as communicated by them.

The storytelling tradition has been passed down from one generation to the next in many Native American communities, and that is the good news. That has helped to build a wealth of resources and information to guide us in learning the real stories of Native American history and culture.

A great place to start in the quest for knowledge is the National Museum of the American Indian.

You’ll want to pay a special visit to Native Knowledge 360, the museum’s “national initiative to inspire and promote improvement of teaching and learning about American Indians.” On the “Lessons & Resources” page, you can search for resources by subject, nation (for instance, Cherokee or Tulalip), region (from the Amazon to the Arctic), grade, and format.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Sequoyah National Research Center, the largest collection of Native American expression in the world, is also fabulous. The collection includes writings and art, and much of it is online. There are special resources for educators, including The Trail of Tears Curriculum Guide, which provides ideas for teaching about subjects ranging from language arts to science based on this horrendous chapter in our history.

You should also see “Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now,” an exhibit at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Ark. Of course, it would be best to see the exhibit in person; but there is lots to explore online.

NEA provides resources as well for teaching Native American and Alaska Native history.

Check out books that celebrate the traditions and culture of Native Americans, and take a look at the PBS Circle of Stories lesson plans, which allow students to dig into the oral tradition of Native American storytelling. Take a look at Tribal Nations & the United States,  which offers an overview of the principals underlying tribal governance within the 573 federally recognized Indian Nations in the United States.

We can also take steps as educators to broaden what is taught by advocating for ethnic studies programs in colleges and universities. And maybe the most important effort we can make is with ourselves: Since all work starts within, we can begin by acknowledging and then addressing our own biases. When we get out of our own way, we are much freer to explore and appreciate all the beauty around us.

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