Education Commentary

Beyond Autumn’s Stereotypes

By Buffy Sainte Marie — October 27, 1999 7 min read

Every year, teachers face that embarrassing time between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving that I call “The Moon of Paper Feather Hats.’' That’s when most schoolchildren study Native Americans. And because of a lack of reliable teaching materials, what they learn usually has little more value than those so-called “war bonnets” that 3rd graders used to make out of construction paper. At Halloween, falling near the middle of this period, Indians are treated like witches and monsters and pirates in most communities, lending an air of fiction to our lives.

Even in good schools, units focusing on Native Americans most often have taken a hobbyist approach.

When my son was in the 5th grade, his teacher came to me and asked for help in presenting a better Native American studies unit to her class. For the first time in this teacher’s career, her class included a Native American child. We looked at the available materials and found them lacking. They weren’t much better than those that were around 15 years earlier, when I’d earned my own teaching degree: a lot of dead text about dead Indians, and the same 20 pictures used again and again. I began writing units that were more accurate than what the schools had previously offered. But the units literally came alive as soon as I put the non-Indian class in direct contact with a class on a reservation in Canada, where my cousin was teaching.

Personalizing the experience had started with pen pals and photo exchanges, but over the years, through a variety of emerging technologies, the personalization developed to include live-chat and video conferencing as well as face-to-face visits. All of these have added a dimension that puts to rest stereotypes of “the vanishing Indian.”

Even in good schools, units focusing on Native Americans most often have taken a hobbyist approach, wherein students discover tipis, corn, moccasins, the concept of pre-Columbian existence, and the fact that we Indians are “a thing of the past,” like the dinosaurs. When it came to important subjects like science, social studies, and geography, the curriculum went back to being only Eurocentric. What kind of message does that give to any child about Native American culture? Even more disturbing, what kind of message does it give to a Native American child about him or herself?

In my lifetime of bicultural involvement with America’s great cities and the Native American grassroots, education’s stereotypical autumn phenomenon doesn’t so much make me angry as it makes me excited about the potential of doing it better. And this is why the Cradleboard Teaching Project was born.

Cradleboard--named for a frame made of natural materials used by North American Indians to carry a child--takes as its goal building cross-cultural friendships in schools without abandoning the context of core curriculum. With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Mich., the project now serves children and teachers in 13 states. Since 1997, the Native American delivering sites have been located in Mohawk, Cree, Apache, Navajo, Quinault, Lummi, Seminole, Pueblo, Ojibwe, Coeur d’Alene, Menominee, and Native Hawaiian communities, where award-winning excellence in education does reside, but often has had a hard time being implemented into the system. Even with regard to local tribal curriculum, teachers in a faraway state can’t find the best of the best in a concise and usable form.

What used to be a pair of problems is now not only solvable, but with remedies that are also a lot of fun. The first problem has been that mainstream (non-Indian) teachers can’t find accurate, enriching information about Native American culture. The second has been that Native American people suffer from being misperceived all our lives because of that lack of mainstream information. The Cradleboard project is out to change all that by providing core curriculum “through Native American eyes’’ to all learners. Then we create cross-cultural partnerships of widely distant classes, and the two classes study Native American culture together.

We create core curriculum in geography, history, social studies, music, and science that matches national content standards for elementary, middle school, and high school levels, and we present it through a Native American perspective. For instance, in their examination of the principles of sound, middle school students learn about frequency and amplitude and wavelengths and the changing lengths of a column of air by studying flutes, as well as drums and rattles and mouthbows and Apache violins. In our first interactive multimedia CD- ROM, “Science: Through Native American Eyes,” we use video, spoken word, animation, text, and music to present principles of friction, principles of sound, and the benefits and constraints of building materials used in various styles of Native American lodges.

The trick to all this, of course, is to do it in such a way that the culture doesn’t get in the way of the science, and vice versa. Science itself has no ethnicity. We all use and are affected by scientific principles regardless of our ethnic backgrounds. So this CD-ROM study of wavelengths, in which we give children virtual hands-on access to interactive sliders like those used in recording studios, seems most appropriate. We could be using piano or trumpet sounds; but instead, we use Native American musical instruments, adding a cultural component without compromising the core subject.

Similarly, the principles of friction are presented in a straightforward way. But we illustrate friction at work through a cultural perspective. Students learn about Snow Snake, a traditional winter game of speed and accuracy in which a carefully constructed lance is hurled down an icy track over a mile long. A Mohawk elder discusses techniques of smoothing, which reduces friction, and the lesson is reinforced with an interactive, animated game of virtual Snow Snake in which players compare their speed scores.

Truly interactive, multimedia CD-ROMs can really enhance learning, but they’d better be more than “point and click.” We built ours so that students engage in tests that require not only multiple-choice and true-false answers, but also thinking, reading, writing, and computer-keyboarding skills. Answers appear only to the teacher, and student scores are automatically tracked and graded. A vocabulary section includes spoken pronunciations (handy for words like Anishnabe and Haudenasaunee), and an Image Library of 86 rare photographs seldom seen except in museums illustrates the science curriculum. Almost everyone who uses the material is surprised by the remarkable accomplishments of Native American people in the sciences, especially those associated with space exploration, medical research, and data-logging for Formula One racing.

For most Americans, ignorance about Native American culture is the same at age 50 as it was in grade 5. Because of that, we’re getting a lot of demand from higher- grade-level educators, as well as from noneducators, even though we designed the CD-ROM for school use in grade 6. University professors, in fact, were some of the first to buy big purchases of “Science: Through Native American Eyes,” and to recommend it for use by teachers of teachers.

Native people have always had a hard time finding good educational materials from which to learn about themselves and other indigenous people. It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing everybody reflected but yourself. Educators in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, and Canada are looking to Cradleboard as a model for improving race relations in their own countries through education. The implications for indigenous educators internationally is exciting. By partnering indigenous populations with mainstream ones, and basing part of that interaction in an indigenous approach to the classic school disciplines, we create relationships where diversity itself becomes a positive element in teaching about the universality of science, geography, music, and other subjects, as well as about the uniqueness of the many cultures that use and experience these concepts.

Creating interactive multimedia is expensive, but it would defeat our mission to serve only affluent communities. So, with a supplemental grant from the Kellogg Foundation, we will be able to give away 1,000 CDs to deserving schools that otherwise could not afford them. Educators wishing to qualify for these free science CD-ROMs must meet certain criteria (financial hardship, evaluation, use of the material in classroom settings, and so forth) and should contact the Cradleboard Teaching Project’s site on the Web at www.cradleboard.org.

The site also describes the project, offers some free supplemental curriculum in a section called “Little Extras,” and is a free on- ramp to hundreds of Native American tribal Web sites, organizations, magazines, celebrities, schools, and subject matters through which we hope to build a cross-cultural bridge between groups of children who deserve to get to know one another better--now, while they are young.