Lessons on native Americans: Thanksgiving and beyond

Every year at Thanksgiving, kindergarten teacher Tina Larson struggles with creating educational activities about native Americans that don't feed the stereotypes her students pick up from cartoons.

Some years she gets around her problem by focusing on the Pilgrims, or by avoiding the human participants at the first feast altogether.

"This year I'm doing turkeys," says Ms. Larson, who works at a private school in Buzzards Bay, Mass.

Teachers are often hampered by limited access to information about Indian culture, or by inaccurate and outdated materials. "I've always wanted to talk to a native American and ask: 'What do you think we should do?' " Larson says.

Those involved with Indian education programs say resources are readily available that can help teachers go beyond feathers and tepees.

They also emphasize that lessons on native people can be taught throughout the school year and across disciplines; and urge teachers to point out that Indians are a people of the present and not just the past.

Joan Avant Tavares, director of the Mashpee (Mass.) public schools Indian Education Program, offers these suggestions for teachers planning lessons:

*Pick one tribe or Indian population. She says it's very important when teaching about native Americans not to "lump them all together."

*Be aware of stereotypes. Don't teach about native people abstractly - include discussions about their values, beliefs, and traditions.

*Tap local resources. Get in touch with native American museums and schools in tribal areas, for example.

*Use the Internet. Many sites exist on specific tribes, cultural practices, and education programs. Information on Ms. Avant Tavares's tribe, the Wampanoag, and other general teaching ideas can be found at the Plimoth Plantation site (www. plimoth.org), and that of the Boston Children's Museum (www.bostonkids.org/teachers).

Another resource for teachers is the Cradleboard Teaching Project (www.cradleboard.org), which offers cross-cultural, multi-discipline curriculum ideas.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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