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Native American Heritage Month: Learning Links & Teaching Tips

Native American celebration | © dlewisnash / Pixabay

November has more than one National Commemorative Observance to honor. November is Native American Heritage Month. This month has been designated by the President of the United States each year since 1990 as a time to honor Native Americans alongside the observance of Thanksgiving. As home educators, this is a great time to explore ways we can teach and learn alongside our children, and continue honoring the history of Indigenous peoples throughout the whole year.

What are the correct terms to use when referring to Native Americans

There has been an ongoing discussion over the last several years about the correct terms to use when referring to Indigenous peoples - and not all Indigenous peoples agree. A definition used by several reputable university departments of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (such as UCLA's) is to only use the term Native Americans when referring to peoples living within what is now the United States prior to European contact. Indigenous is the most inclusive term, as there are Indigenous peoples living on every continent throughout the world. The consensus among Indigenous peoples seems to be that whenever possible, they prefer to be called by their specific tribal name. Native Americans is a broad umbrella term still used widely but it has some controversy since the United States Government came up with the term (not Indigenous peoples themselves). It was intended to give primacy to the Indigenous peoples' residency in the nation, but since many Indigenous peoples don't identify this land as America in their tribe's history and culture, then the term Native Americans is not helpful to use. I use the term Native American when referring to the United States official commemorative month and when referencing homeschooling information, since that may the best topic title to search by in order to find books, curriculum, and resources to help you homeschool your children. And I use the term Native American when a particular Indigenous author or artist I link to uses the term Native American - I defer to that author's preferred usage. I use Indigenous people throughout this blog post as often as possible when referring to Native, tribal peoples living now.


Thanksgiving's history is inexorably tied to the history of the settlers of the Plymouth Colony, and their interactions with Native Americans. As a young child I was instructed in public school each year to color, draw, paint, make oodles of crafts about, and memorize and recite a fantasy version of the First Thanksgiving. I was taught it was a story of unity and courage. I was taught to view this moment as the beginning of a long-lasting positive alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. However, as I grew up and out of public school, I began to unravel the myth. This alliance was very short-lived. The whole and true history of our country's treatment of Native Americans across this vast continent is often sidelined or simplified because it is a difficult part of our history to address with children. Public schools are still struggling with this issue. But as homeschoolers, we have the freedom to teach our children in truly personalized ways and dig deep and do better in our approach to the history of Indigenous people and how it's tied to the history of Thanksgiving.

How do we teach our children about the hard truths of Native American history without traumatizing them or making them resistant to learning more?

For starters, we should avoid oversimplified reenactments of the violent, traumatic parts of history. Simulations of events that segregate students into groups of oppressors and the oppressed do more harm than good. Teaching history in this way (as many traditional classrooms have) removes the complexity of a people or culture and perpetuates the invisibility of their strengths and triumphs. It also dismisses the reality that discrimination and oppression may still be occurring for Indigenous students and students of color, causing them to feel alienated by the curriculum, confused and scared by their teachers and classmates, who don't seem to notice how it all impacts them.

This can result in an experience of retraumatization for Indigenous children, and Black and Brown children, as well as children who are more sensitive. And it can happen accidentally and innocently outside of the classroom, too. Imagine that a child innocently retells a brutal, one-sided story of history that they were taught to their Indigenous friend who then feels the fear, pain, and trauma of that story in ways the child who was retelling the story doesn't. How can we address this to help the child who was traumatized, as well as the child who accidentally hurt their friend, if we don't even know it's happening? Unfortunately, this scenario plays out more often than we know. The traumatizing of children from a poorly designed curriculum is a problem that many public schools across the country have recognized and are working to find new ways to solve. They are looking for the best approach to presenting the difficult parts of history (that were left out for far too long) in ways that are respectful and sensitive to Indigenous children and children of color.

As home educators we have an advantage; we can protect the psyches of our children and their Indigenous and minority peers by adopting best practices for learning and of teaching that can help mitigate against trauma. We can focus on learning in-depth about the details of Indigenous cultures. Their preferred names, their preferred narratives (not the narratives that were spun from poorly designed history books, as well as prejudiced and racist movies, and television shows). We can guide our children in perceiving Indigenous peoples as groups of complex and diverse cultures, and peoples, with rich histories and contributions. We can learn in-depth about the origin stories, languages, traditions, and ways of life of Indigenous peoples that live near us and bring awareness to the fact that Native Americans are not simply a part of history. We can teach our children that caricatures and tropes of Native Americans should be rejected and denounced. We can focus on the strengths and achievements of Indigenous peoples, and celebrate their contributions, while we also recognize the struggles they are still experiencing today.

Next, we should make sure the narratives and stories we teach our children are authentically Native-centered, with Native American people, and their lives as the central focus - written by Indigenous authors. And when addressing the harder parts of history we should be sure to include stories of celebration, joy, bravery, heroism, and triumph.

For our middle school and high school students, who can developmentally handle more challenging material, we should still continue to guard against the tendency of many poorly designed curricula to lean towards a pity-teaching style. Either by solely focusing on lessons of oppression within the difficult history of The Trail of Tears and the Indian Removal Act, for example, or leaving out important details of Native American contributions and resistance. Include nuanced tales within these histories of how Indigenous people organized, fought back, and won physical and legal battles, such as the group that held Alcatraz for 18 months, or the full story of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, Shawnee brothers who promoted unity among Native American tribes and led the most coordinated resistance against white settlers. And be sure to include current contributions of Indigenous groups today, such as the Indigenous Environmental Network that is doing important work to preserve tribal lands from environmental destruction.

The Importance of teaching our kids about specific Native American tribes and communities.

Native Americans is a term that encompasses many different regional tribes across the whole of the United States, each with their own beliefs, cultural traditions, and ways of life. We can help our kids understand that these differences between Indigenous peoples matter by delving deep into learning about different groups. Learn their names - in their languages, their customs, traditions, music, dance, songs, and crafts. This type of learning helps our children to genuinely honor the diversity of Indigenous people.

No matter the age of our children, we should teach them that Indigenous people are a diverse group of strong, proud people who deserve admiration and respect. We should learn about them holistically: learning about their strengths, triumphs, and contributions, not just their suffering.

The good news is that there are so many resources available to help us teach our children about Native Americans from a holistic perspective. Start with the vast and ever-growing number of reputable resources on the internet, continue with your local libraries, bookstores, and museums. These are all great places to find quality resources. An easy way to begin right now is by learning about the history of our Nation's Native American Heritage Month and exploring websites that offer learning resources during this month.




To properly emphasize the vital connection between Thanksgiving and Native Americans, in 1990 Congress passed Pub. L. 101-343 which authorized and requested the President to designate November as National American Indian Heritage Month. This landmark bill honored America's Indigenous, tribal people, giving them an official platform to share their cultures, traditions, and ways of life. Every year the President makes a proclamation affirming November as National Native American Heritage Month.

(Pictured above, detail of Diné (Navajo) double saddle blanket, circa 1880. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, visit their Catalog Data link)

Please enjoy this curated list of learning resources to help us all honor Native American Heritage Month and Indigenous People alongside our celebrations and traditions of Thanksgiving.


CythiaLeitichSmith.Com : Children's, Young Adult and Teaching Booklists and Resources

Native Knowledge 360 - Transforming teaching & learning about Native Americans - Contemporary Native American photography project

Visit Project562, and view the stunning online photo gallery of contemporary Native American photographs, by Filmmaker & Photographer Matika Wilbur.

Indigenous People YouTube Links for Children & Teens

(Dignity statue, in Chamberlain, South Dakota)

  • (for teens and older students) - Life Lakota: The Cheyenne River Reservation - Life Lakota captures the state of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota today. The Lakota culture is fading and their voices must be heard.


Please feel free to share your favorite Indigenous & Native American resources in the comments section below. The more links and resources we can share with one another, the better. :)


This guest post was written by veteran homeschooling parent, Paige McKinney.

Paige McKinney is a mom of 2 grown unschoolers, and 1 nearly grown unschooler who attends a self-directed democratic school. She has over 19 years of experience homeschooling and unschooling in Orange County, California, including working with homeschool groups, educational non-profit organizations, and independent study charter schools. More recently, Paige decided to follow her heart and move her family to Pennsylvania, where she is exploring alternative education, gardening, and painting on the East Coast.


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