The history of Native American Heritage Month is an interesting topic that learners can research, discuss, and consider in a deep and meaningful way. Due to the November observance of Native American Heritage Month, and the role Native Americans played in the first Thanksgiving, it is also a great time to include a study of Native American culture, art, and folklore into your regular lesson planning - or as an extra fun project.
In 1915, Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian and director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, NY, encouraged local Boy Scout troops to celebrate First Americans Day. In the fall of that same year, Reverend Sherman Coolidge proclaimed that the day should be celebrated on the second Saturday of each May, and be called American Indian Day. Around the same time, yet another proclamation for the celebration of the contributions of Native Americans was called to order: Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rode on horseback from state to state seeking approval for a day to honor Indians. On December 14, 1915, he presented the endorsements of 24 state governments at the White House. However, no formal institutions of the day occurred until 1990, when George W. Bush proclaimed Native American Heritage Month as an official month of observation for the heritage and contributions of the first Americans.
The topic of any national holiday or observance can become a socially charged subject to research. Many observances, such as Black History Month, Native American Heritage Month, or Women’s History Month stem from a shift or change in how society perceives an entire portion of the population, or from an outcry of the injustices of the past. To get the class started on researching to discuss Native American Heritage Month, pose questions that will help them outline and draw conclusions about the nature of how social views regarding Native Americans have changed. The following are example paper prompts appropriate for children in grades seven through twelve:
- How were Native Americans viewed during the colonial period?
- Did this view change or continue?
- How were Native Americans treated after the Civil War?
- How did Native Americans aid in the building of America?
- What is Native American Heritage Month? Who started it and why?
- Why do you think we celebrate Native American Heritage?
- Consider how Native Americans have been viewed or treated in the past. If you were a Native American, how or what would you feel about people celebrating Native American Heritage Month?
The questions should lead researchers to consider first contact, common stereotypes, treatment of Native American populations, shifts in social understanding, the history of Native American Heritage Month, and finally, why it is observed. Have the class use the first drafts of their papers as the basis for a class discussion. This will give them the opportunity to use the evidence they have gathered during their research to engage in a deep discussion, while also providing them with the opportunity to change or alter their views based on information or ideas gleaned from the discussion. The paper will become an active part of the learning process, as well as an assessment of writing, research, and concept understanding. Note that this process can be used with any research paper, and mocks what commonly occurs in college-level discussion groups. It is typical for college students to discuss or conduct research in pairs or small groups; often this is when new or different views are formulated. Middle and high school learners can gain deep understanding of what they think and how to use their information actively by using their first drafts for discussion, taking notes on their papers during discussion, and then using both to construct a more thoughtful final draft of their paper.
Research, Arts, and Projects
Native American arts, crafts, and artifacts are so fun to create; they are culturally significant, are wonderful expressions of time and place, and can help children understand indigenous populations. I believe that the promise of the project is a great motivator when getting youngsters to research with thoughtfulness. Introduce the children to the Native American culture area, group, or tribe you will be discussing during the month. The introduction should include a class reading of several informational texts describing the culture, art, beliefs, and rituals commonly practiced by the tribe. Have the class create a large chart of cultural and environmental factors associated with the tribe based on the texts read in class. This should happen prior to introducing the art or folklore of the tribe. Second, begin sharing the arts, stories, and myths of the tribe, being sure to prompt learners to consider the information gathered during class reading. Have them create a second chart that shows the relationship between the tribe’s culture and belief systems, and the art and stories they created. It could be useful to discuss symbolism found in the images and stories you share, and have those symbols drawn next to relevant cultural factors found in the informational texts.
Have each child choose one art form from the tribe you are focusing on; it could be dance, song, storytelling, ritual/dramatization, or visual art. Students will conduct research using texts and the Internet to find images, watch videos, read, and take notes on their chosen art form. Have them keep a design journal to track their research while designing their finished products. Side note: a design journal is a great way to solidify concrete knowledge found and used in creative projects. It can make them more meaningful and can help learners to connect the arts to facts, evidence, and research.
Each child will have created a unique and different expression of what they learned during reading and research. Take one week to allow time for learners to share what they’ve created based on what they’ve learned about the tribe you’ve been discussing throughout the month. Projects can include:
- Stories (which the children will write and read aloud)
- Dramatic performances/movies
Sharing their final products might be as simple as inviting another class or parents to view the creations. Remember if you’re not having fun teaching, they aren’t having fun learning. Native American Heritage is such a rich and diverse topic of study; I’ve listed more ideas, projects, and websites to help you celebrate the culture and beauty of the first Americans.
Native American Heritage Home Page
You'll find everything you need to teach, share, and engage learners in understanding what Native American Heritage Month is all about. This link will take you to the teacher resource page of the site, but I encourage you to check out everything they have to offer.
This site offers a ton of great arts and crafts projects which can be searched by tribe.
Listed on this site are many different games and activities that Native American children used to play. This could be another great topic for youngsters to research.
This site is amazing! There are multiple full art lessons available with how-to image galleries and wonderful ideas.
Don't even worry about getting what you need for the projects your pupils want to make. This site has a great catalog of Native American crafting supplies and artifacts for purchase.
Dick Blick provides both art supplies and great art ideas. The site has several Native American art projects organized by grade level.