If you check out your child’s history textbook, you’ll probably see a small chapter (or less) on Native Americans and what their lives were like long, long ago. Although many schools across the United States have high numbers of Indigenous (the first people to inhabit a land) students, it’s uncommon for kids to learn accurate information about 21st century Native Americans. It’s also uncommon for Indigenous parents to be invited to school to talk to classrooms about their tribe, culture, and heritage.
As parents, we have the opportunity to teach our kids to embrace differences by teaching them about different people in factual and culturally appropriate ways. Communities across the United States are now celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day alongside or instead of Columbus Day. The purpose behind the shift is to honor and recognize Indigenous people as the first inhabitants of the United States. It also brings to the forefront the importance of making Indigenous people visible in our communities all year round.
Unfortunately, because there is so little curriculum in the United States developed from Indigenous perspectives, our kids often lose out on learning about the beauty and diversity of over 500 Native nations. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a wonderful opportunity to engage your littles in learning more about Indigenous people living in the 21st century.
While many schools and communities celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on Monday, October 14th, you can celebrate it all month long with the following activities.
Celebrate unity and gratitude. We can honor the traditions of others by reading books written by Indigenous authors. One book that young learners enjoy is We Are Grateful by Traci Sorrell. Traci Sorrell, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, takes readers on a journey through the year with a Cherokee family and their tribal nation as they express thanks for celebrations big and small.
Here are some activities you can use to engage your little before, during, and after reading this beautiful book:
- Before reading: Talk to your child about what the words “unity” and “gratitude” mean to them. Provide child-friendly definitions, for example, “unity” means “coming together” and “gratitude” means “being thankful.” Discuss some ways that you come together as a family and show that you are thankful (e.g. high-fives, saying thanks, doing something kind, or cuddling with someone you love). Write some of your ideas down on colorful notecards and place them on the table.
- During reading: Support your child in saying the Cherokee words accurately. Have a discussion about the importance of trying our best to learn new words. Relate this to how crucial it is to say people’s names correctly.
- After reading:. Create a piece of artwork that showcases the seasons where you live. Discuss the different things you are grateful for during each season. Refer to the notecards you created before reading and discuss the ways you show you are grateful.
Extend your learning of Native nations. It’s important for children to see and read about Indigenous kids who presently live in communities all over the United States. A great place to start is with the book Children of Native America Today by Yvonne Wakim Dennis & Arlene Hirschfelder. This incredible book is a compilation of photographs, narratives, and facts that give kids a tiny glimpse of some of the Native cultures around the United States. Here are some talking points to make the most out of your reading session:
- Discuss your own traditions. Talk about what a tradition is (e.g., customs or beliefs you hold as a family or within your culture and/or cultural identity). Explain to your child why traditions are important in many families and how they are passed down from generation to generation. Discuss words like ancestor and descendant, explaining that our ancestors are those who lived on Earth before us, and descendants are those who will live on Earth after us.
- Discuss some of your favorite things to do as a family. Look at the pictures in the book and talk about some of the things you see kids doing. For example, kids are playing outside, making sandwiches, and making pottery. Talk about some of your favorite things to do as a family. Compare and contrast the celebrations you see in the book with your own special celebrations and holidays.
Learn about what Native nation’s land you live on. Read This Land is My Land by George Littlechild. Next, head to Whose Land: Territories by Land and find out whose land you live on. Although specifically for Canada, this online resource provides an abundance of information about Native nations throughout the United States as well. Once you find whose land you live on, this online resource provides you with access to many of the Native nations’ websites. The websites provide a platform to research upcoming events and ways you can support Indigenous communities, including donating to Indigenous-led and child-centered organizations.
Watch Molly of Denali . This fairly new children’s series on PBS was created by Alaska Native writers and advisers, and it’s one of the first child-centered programs to have a Native American lead. My three-year-old daughter thoroughly enjoys this show, and so do I! The narrative of the show is focused on Molly making connections to her Indigenous roots. Here are a few tips and talking points when watching this show with your young children:
- Talk about words like American Indian, Native American, and Alaska Native. Explain to your child that most Indigenous people (define Indigenous for your child as the first people to inhabit a land or the first people to live in an area) prefer to be called by their specific tribal group. Remind your child if they aren’t sure, they can always ask.
- As you watch the show, point out any Athabascan words (the language Molly’s family speaks) and names you hear. Encourage your child to practice saying them. Discuss the importance of speaking one’s home language and relate this to the languages you speak at home.
- Head to the Molly of Denali website on PBS and have your child play one of the digital games to extend their learning. Check out the lessons, too. Although geared towards educators, there are many ways you can utilize these at home to extend your child’s learning.
To celebrate and raise the voices of Indigenous people all year long, check out some of these resources that will guide you in the right direction:
- Little Feminist: Native American, First Nation, and Indigenous Peoples’ Book List
- Lessons from Turtle Island by Guy W. Jones and Sally Moomaw
- Rethinking Columbus by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson
- American Indians in Children’s Literature
- National Congress of American Indians
By April Brown (M.Ed), writer and education consultant based in Austin, TX.