Native Americans, the indigenous peoples of the United States, currently comprise 1% of the population. The culture and traditions of Native Americans have been a source of support and healing for them in contemporary society, and educators will benefit from understanding the distinctive backgrounds and heritages of their Native American students.
History & Background
Each tribe has its own unique history. Increasingly those histories are being related in public schools. For example, stories of the pilgrims settling New England are now intermixed with stories of Squanto and others teaching them how to build warm houses, plant crops, and adapt their European ways to the new environment. Accounts of explorations of the West now recognize not only how Sacagawea helped Lewis and Clark, but how native peoples were betrayed during decades of encroachment and violence. Accounts of WWII now recognize unique contributions of Native Americans, such as the Navajo Code Talkers who used their native language to effectively transmit messages the enemies could not decode.
Native Americans are gaining increased representation and political power. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, called the "Indian New Deal," established new rights for Native American nations, allowing them limited sovereignty and presenting them with new roads, health care, and education. Civil liberties have gradually increased since that time, although the legacy of past oppression continues to have effects that should not be minimized.
Culture & Traditions
More than 500 Native American tribes are recognized in the United States. While there are similarities among tribal heritages and traditions, Native American culture varies from nation to nation. Furthermore, the culture of Native Americans living on reservations differs greatly from that of Native Americans who do not live on reservations.
What is specifically characteristic of Native American culture? There is no single answer to this question. As educators develop lesson plans for teaching about Native American culture, they must keep in mind that each tribe holds its own traditions and way of life. Often the media and books tend to inappropriately generalize all Native Americans. Teaching specific information about different tribes helps to depict the Native American culture more accurately. Educators may want to consider incorporating cooperative learning, focusing on building strong relationships of trust, and using real life examples to illustrate the importance of classroom material. The following links provide more examples of how educators can modify their classrooms to be considerate of Native American students.