American Indian Heritage Now and All Year Long

Anasazi dwelling in Arizona by Eric Simon at Pixabay

By Susan Curtis

In November each year, Americans observe National Native American Heritage Month and American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. US government agencies vary in their naming of the month recognizing the peoples’ cultures, histories and contributions.

After centuries of referring to indigenous peoples living in the United States as Indians, in the 1960s and 1970s the term Native American gained acceptance. Today some Native Americans prefer American Indian while others prefer to be recognized as a member of their tribe. (See this Smithsonian FAQ for educators.)

Visit the Native American Heritage Month site for links to US government resources, including the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Edsitement! teacher’s guide, American Indian History and Heritage, which offers sections on teaching indigenous perspectives, preserving indigenous culture, indigenous languages, place based histories, lessons, resources and more.

The Native American Heritage Month site also shares Library of Congress resources, including Native American Newspapers: Studying the History through the Eyes of the Community by Danna Bell. Newspapers as early as 1828 are included with images of pages available. In addition the LOC hosts teaching resources on Native American boarding schools, providing images and a teacher’s guide.

You will also find a link to the National Archives which collects Federal agencies’ documents about interactions between the US government and American Indians. The documents included in DocsTeach offer primary sources and images. The Archives also provide teaching resources – many targeting high school students – for example, The Impact of Westward Expansion on Native American Communities and American Indian Voting Rights through History.

A Native American protester tries to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Creative Commons image licensed by Desiree Kane [CC BY 3.0]

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian includes the Native Knowledge 360 Degree Education Initiative with PD, virtual field trips, lessons and much more. The current introductory PD webinar for teachers in grades 4-12, Foundations for Transforming Teaching and Learning about Native Americans, is free and self-paced with a four-week window for completion (a credit option is available). Several other 2021 webinars are also available.

Students can Zoom virtual field trips at the Museum. Reservations, made at least one week ahead, are required. Among the middle grades topics are “American Indian Removal” and “Treaties Matter: Northern Plains Treaties and the Dakota Pipeline Access.”

Representative Deb Haaland celebrating Native American Heritage Month in 2019. She now serves as US Secretary of the Interior.

The SI museum site also offers a detailed Q&A section with information on terminology, policy & laws, land acknowledgement, cultures and much more. Included in the museum’s online exhibits is a photographic collection of ten treaties between the United States and American Indian Nations (with transcripts). The selection ranges from 1778 to 1868 and is representative of the 374 treaties that were ratified between the United States and Native Nations.

If students are selecting an American Indian, Alaska Native or Hawaiian Native for further study, they can visit the US National Park Service collection of introductory information about 68 outstanding individuals.

The US Census Bureau provides Facts for Features: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2021 which can be helpful in math as well as social studies classes with its statistics on population, housing, employment, and much more. The article’s introductory paragraph is a helpful summation of the month’s development, going back to 1916 when New York first observed Native American Day due to the years of work by Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfeet Nation.

Beyond US government resources

Scholastic offers a succinct Overview of Native American History, about half of which predates the arrival of Europeans. The website also highlights Native American Contributions. For a longer discussion of indigenous people’s contributions, see this PDF from Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA.

National Geographic’s Native American Indian Month collection includes maps and articles with grade and reading level designations. Resources range from a map of migration via the Bering Land Bridge to an article about the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

PBS Learning Media also offers brief videos and lessons on Native Americans. Students can learn about the American Indian Movement (1968–1978) using primary sources shared at this Digital Public Library of America teaching guide. Find lots more PBS videos here.

At Edutopia find Hedreich Nichols’ 2020 post, Providing Deeper Context in Lessons on Indigenous Peoples, which provides an overview of European immigrants’ takeover of American Indians’ land and lists resources.

The website American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL), created by Dr. Debbie Reese of Nambé Pueblo in 2006 and co-edited by Dr. Jean Mendoza, looks at children’s and young adult books with a view to the presentation of indigenous peoples. Among the blog posts are Tips for Teachers: Developing Instructional Materials about American Indians and Native Nonfiction.

For fiction, read this 2019 SLJ article, Native Stories: Books for tweens and teens by and about Indigenous peoples by Dr. Reese and Kara Stewart (Sappony).

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a federal holiday celebrated the second Monday in October. Many American Indians and others observe it instead of Columbus Day. For more information, visit this 2020 article by Dennis W. Zotigh and Renee Gokey in Smithsonian Magazine.

Susan Curtis

Susan Curtis is co-editor of MiddleWeb.com. In a long career, she has taught middle grades students, worked in human services, edited a variety of publications and wrangled the reference desk in libraries.

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