First established through a joint resolution by Congress in 1990, National American Indian Heritage Month is now recognized annually each November. It’s a time to learn more about the history of American Indians, and for educators and their students, it’s a perfect opportunity not only to celebrate the heritage of native peoples, but also to share a variety of “life stories.”

Although American Indian Heritage Month hasn’t always been officially recognized, most American children learned something about “Indians” in elementary school. At that age, many of us were taught about teepees, wigwams and headdresses; few of us learned much of the real history of First Nation peoples, or heard their personal stories. The stories we did hear, such as that of Pocahontas, were rich in mythology but offered little insight into what it truly means to be Native American.

And while almost all cultures use stories to document their cultural and religious heritage, and to show how the past influences the present, Native Americans have a particularly rich history of storytelling. Indigenous storytelling includes not only legends, history, poems and spirituality, but also deeply personal observations about the world and each person’s place in it.

With that in mind, schools can broaden their celebration this month through storytelling. Teachers can help students learn about the personal experiences of First Nation people, and encourage students to think about their own “life stories,” especially in terms of race, identity and belonging.

The educators at RaceBridgesforSchools, a nonprofit initiative that offers free lesson plans on diversity, have developed resources that can be used to celebrate American Indian Heritage Month — and to get students thinking about their own life stories:

  • I Am Indopino: Or, How to Answer the Question, Who Are You?” by professional storyteller Gene Tagaban. In this story (which accompanies a complete lesson plan), Tagaban talks about his combined Cherokee, Tlingit and Filipino ancestry, as well as his family’s exploration and eventual acceptance of their own complex identity. Tagaban’s story, touching on themes of family, lineage and the human relationship with the natural world, will resonate with students searching for their place in the world and a sense of belonging..
  • The Spirit Survives” by First Nation storyteller Dovie Thomason recalls her family’s experience in the Indian boarding schools, to which American Indian children were taken by force to be assimilated into white culture. Dovie’s story and the associated lesson plan, available free from RaceBridgesStudio.com, exposes students to historical events that aren’t taught in most schools. It also touches on themes of cultural identity, inclusion and exclusion, and the power of education.

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By sharing stories such as these, teachers can offer a more meaningful celebration of American Indian Heritage Month this November. And in the process, students may learn more about their own uniqueness and the deep connections we share with people of different backgrounds.

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For the text, audio and lesson plans of “The Spirit Survives:
The Indian Boarding School Experience, Then and Now”

as well as “I Am Indopino: Or, How to Answer the Question,

Who Are You?” visit RaceBridgesStudio.com

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