Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.1 (2004) 66-68
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A curricular staple of many elementary and preschool classrooms is a unit devoted to American Indians in which children research a tribe, customs, architecture, or historical events, creating art projects like the diorama of an Indian village. Although teachers often intend for such units to enliven children's interest in Native peoples, the reality is that these activities generally reinforce stereotypes and encourage misinformation about contemporary indigenous Americans. The authors of Lessons from Turtle Island, Guy Jones (Hunkpapa Lakota) and Sally Moomaw have collaborated to educate teachers of young children about how to integrate Native books and themes into their curriculum, suggesting alternatives to the ubiquitous "Indian unit." They argue that all children will benefit from a curriculum that treats ethnic minorities and the dominant culture in similar ways, that pairs picture books about everyday themes inhabited by Native characters with books representing other ethnic groups. According to Jones and Moomaw, non-Native children will thereby learn that American Indians live lives similar to their own, possessing the same concerns and joys that all humans experience.
Jones and Moomaw begin by defining the pedagogical problems associated with American Indian curriculums in elementary and preschool classrooms. They argue that teachers can learn to ask better questions and find better answers about all cultures by considering the problems associated with damaging pedagogical choices in connection with Native peoples: "1. Omission of Native American materials from the curriculum 2. Inaccurate portrayals or information in the curriculum 3. Stereotyping of Native American peoples 4. Cultural insensitivity" (7). Regardless of good intentions, teachers can perpetuate stereotypes due to a tendency towards "tourist curriculum" which accentuates "skin color and appearance," "warlike" natures, and dehumanizing images (10, 12-17). This brief overview works to introduce teachers not familiar with American Indians to vital concerns of contemporary Native peoples. [End Page 66]
Moreover, Jones and Moomaw touch on "cultural insensitivity" as they critique such practices as making headdresses, peace pipes, and totem poles in preschool and elementary classrooms, thereby discouraging the replication of the sacred in the form of art instruction. In particular, they critique what sounds like an atrocious book, Laurie Carlson's More Than Moccasins (1994), which instructs teachers on how to make peace pipes using toilet paper rolls, fetishes out of soap, and tom-toms from oatmeal containers. Jones and Moomaw stress that such art projects demean the sacred and reinforce stereotypes. Each of the subsequent chapters ends with a brief analysis of other activities that the authors discourage, thereby educating readers about activities that demean Native peoples.
To replace problematic activities and texts, Jones and Moomaw summarize a variety of children's books authored by American Indians that, on the whole, portray contemporary Indians in ways that help children understand cross-cultural similarities in children, families, and human beings. Chapters focus on traditional categories like home, families, community, and the environment, following the format of dialogue between Jones and Moomaw, brief definition, suggested readings with activities, and analysis of activities not recommended. In the bulk of the chapters, Jones and Moomaw link art, science, and writing projects with picture books dealing with the lives of contemporary Native peoples; their emphasis throughout is on integrating Native materials into thematic curriculums for young children rather than studying American Indians as rarified, exotic others. For example, after reading books dealing with moccasins, Jones and Moomaw suggest activities such as playing shoe store (including a variety of kinds of shoes) and creating a science project with sand and the imprints of shoes. They suggest that such activities serve to educate children about shoes rather than about Native Americans. The books by and about Native peoples serve only as a jumping off point for learning, just as teachers use picture books to focus discussions that help children learn to function in the everyday world. One of the greatest strengths of...