Opinion
Social Studies Opinion

‘We Exist': How to Learn About Native Americans Through Native Lenses

A Navajo scholar offers insight and resources for educators
By Farina King — November 08, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of a Navajo caregiver braiding a child's hair; they are surrounded by people, demonstrating that Natives Americans maintain their strong traditions, even as they exist within a diverse community.
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Every November, someone contacts me to present about Native Americans for Native American Heritage Month. In such presentations, I provide background about the month and why it matters. But I also emphasize how important it is to learn about Native Americans not just in a single month or at a single event. I stress turning to and listening foremost to Native American and Indigenous voices throughout the year.

Growing up, I primarily attended school in an area with very few Native Americans. I am a Diné woman with a white American settler mother and a Diné father. I was born in the Navajo Nation and lived there as a child, but our family moved to the Washington metropolitan region by the time that I started grade school. In school, I was the only Native American in my classes. I did not know any other Native American children, teachers, and people other than our family for most of my upbringing. My family visited our relatives in the Navajo Nation when we could. With my relatives, I heard Diné bizaad (Navajo language) when my father spoke to his siblings.

As long as I can remember, I have understood that we are Navajo and I learned that we call ourselves Diné. But many of my classmates and teachers knew very little about Native Americans and Diné, so my dad often came to my classes to present about Native Americans. My dad and I were part of a “show and tell” because we are “real” Native Americans, living and breathing.

Despite all this, I have often met people who think all Native Americans are extinct, or they look at me incredulously when I tell them that I am Native American. The ongoing ignorance has inspired me to present with my father and throughout my life when Native American Heritage Month arrives each year. I have expected to do it so much that when my children entered grade school, I started to offer cultural lessons to their classes. I realize, though, that Native American Heritage Month is not enough to redress the miseducation about Native Americans, and Native Americans cannot teach about our own people alone.

Recently, my presentations for the month begin with some tongue-in-cheek comments about “Something Else Month.” My Seminole friend, the artist Alisa Douglas, designed posters for Native American Heritage Month with that title after she saw CNN in the 2020 elections lump Indigenous voters into a category the news organization called “something else.” CNN had a chart showing how Americans voted by race, but Native Americans were nowhere to be found. They were “something else.”

Many Native Americans then started to create memes such as “Something Else & Proud,” emphasizing that they can have a critical mass as voters and matter as Indigenous peoples. Nearly 10 million Americans identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. This is crucial for educators and everyone to understand—we exist. We have our own Indigenous names, collective and individual. Come to know us through our lenses. Do your work, making sure your sources are valid and include those directly from Indigenous peoples.

If you want to invite a speaker or prepare an event or lesson recognizing Native Americans, do it the best way. Good things take a lot of preparation and cannot be an afterthought or rushed. Ask around, research, and learn. Build relationships with partners and communities that are healthy and reciprocal. Native Americans are culturally, socially, and politically marginalized. At the same time, Native educators and scholars are few with high demands on them.

I have often met people who think all Native Americans are extinct, or they look at me incredulously when I tell them that I am Native American.

Most importantly, reach out to Native nations nearest to you. We are all on Native land. Learn about the Indigenous peoples of the lands where you live, work, learn, and teach using the interactive map called Native Land. Understand Indigenous land acknowledgement, why acknowledgement matters, and how to respectfully recognize Indigenous peoples in relation to place. Look at the websites and resources endorsed by Native Nations and communities. (See resource box below.)You can research public events that Native American communities and peoples host such as powwows and art exhibitions, which are growing in number throughout the country.

Remember to act with respect, responsibility, and reciprocity. How can we give and not just take? What can you offer to Native American peoples and communities that matter to them? Can you help with service-learning lessons that support Native American initiatives and needs? It begins with learning and listening to Native American communities and peoples. There are podcasts, publications, and online resources, for example, that help guide people to such initiatives. You can also find literature for children and youth written by Native Americans.

When there are difficult topics such as Native American boarding school trauma, get information from legitimate organizations such as the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Follow the news to be up to date about Native American issues and social movements, including the push to establish a federal Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies.

The language and terms you use, your visuals, and the overall tone of your lessons matter. Beware of thinking in terms of “vanishing” cultures, romanticizing Native American life past or present, or reveling in the ways Indigenous people have been victimized. Native Americans are strong, resilient peoples who have a future to sustain. While there is much injustice and hardship of the past, I want people to know what many public intellectuals and my elders have taught me—we are here and we will be here, beautiful in our differences but a part of the harmony of the world.

Diné say “Walk in Beauty” to refer to seeking balance and harmony in all things. Teaching the truths and complexities of Native American peoples by listening to Native Americans beyond November will bring you and your students to pathways in beauty/hózhó.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a short series of opinion essays reflecting on Native American Heritage Month.

Native American Heritage: A Short List of Resources From the Author

Native Land map

Organizations with free resources for educators:

· National Indian Education Association

· Indigenous History and Literacy Project

· Turtle Island Social Studies Collective

· National Museum of the American Indian

· National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

· Native Governance Center (land acknowledgment)

Native American Nations offering free interactive apps, games, and lesson plans:

· Chickasaw Nation

· Citizen Potawatomi Nation

Podcasts addressing Indigenous current affairs and culture:

· Native Circles (Farina King)

· This Land (Rebecca Nagle)

· All My Relations (Matika Wilbur and Adrienne Keene)

Blogs

· Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature

Webpage

· Best picture books for kids by and about American Indians (Indianapolis Public Library)

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