5 Things Educators Should Know Before Teaching Native Culture and History

Tracy Canard Goodluck / Reader-submitted photo of a festival-goer getting down to the Pet Shop Boys.

It’s summer, and teachers across Turtle Island will probably be thinking about their lesson plans for the coming school

A question was recently posed to ICTMN wondering what teachers should know before approaching American Indian culture and history with their classrooms, so we started thinking about some basic answers.

We are not saying it is necessary to share horrible details with children, however, we do believe teachers should be aware of the truth when teaching any history of this country. Here are just five things educators should know:

Columbus Was Not a Hero and He Never Landed in the United States

Very few Native Americans would argue that Christopher Columbus was a terrible person that resorted to slavery, murder and other horrifying tactics in order to secure gold for his King and Queen. He wrote of selling 9-year-old girls to his men for unimaginable acts and his men killed hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.

He also never landed in the upper 48 states nor did he ever go there, he even returned to Spain in shackles for his atrocities. To this day, Native people in the United States have fought to have Columbus Day removed as a national holiday.

Christopher Columbus presents Native Americans to Queen Isabella.

The Real Story of the First Thanksgiving

As one third-grader put it—Pilgrims and Indians were not “besties,” and that student was correct.

In 1621, when a settlement of Pilgrims was celebrating a decent harvest, they began firing weapons and cannons into the air. Not certain what was happening, a group of Wampanoag Indians traveled to investigate. The Indians were all men and they outnumbered the Pilgrims two to one. Wanting to appease their guests, the pilgrims created a feast of wild fowl, (most likely geese or duck—not turkey) sweet potatoes were not available nor was sugar for cranberries.

In 1636, a murdered man was found in a boat and the Pequot tribe was blamed. English Major John Mason rallied his troops to burn down Pequot wigwams, which resulted in a tremendous massacre of the Pequot people.

This is a popular image of the first Thanksgiving, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. But this is definitely NOT what happened.

The following day the Governor of Plymouth William Bradford wrote the following:

“Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire… horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.”

The day after the massacre, William Braford, who was also the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote that from that day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots, which started the practice of an annual Thanksgiving: “For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”

Disney’s Pocahontas is Historically Wrong

According to Pamunkey historians, who are direct descendants of Pocahontas, at the time John Smith arrived in the Americas Pocahontas was approximately 8 or 9 years old. These same historians also maintain that Pocahontas was already married when she was kidnapped at age 15 or 16, her child was given to family members and she was forced to convert to Christianity. Soon after her conversion she was married to John Rolfe.

Disney's version of Pocahontas.

Some tribal historians also ascertain that she was in good health when she came back from England, but fell mysteriously ill and shortly died after having dinner with the ship’s captain and John Rolfe, they believe she was poisoned.

Wearing Sacred Regalia Is Offensive to Native Americans

All too often these days non-Native people are quick to don Indian headdresses and/or feathers as a sign of fashion. Such items are looked at by Native people as sacred regalia meant for holy ceremonies, not as fashionable adornments.

Native Americans NEVER flap their hands over their mouths and scream woo-woo-woo-woo or raise one hand and say “how”—only those acting out stereotypes portrayed by the media do that.

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