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Celebrating Voices from Indigenous Nations in our ELA Classrooms

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Think back to the way indigenous people were represented to you when you were a kid. Maybe you watched Pocahantas and Peter Pan, digesting the Disney version of American Indians without question. Maybe someone you knew loved the Cleveland Indians and cheered for Chief Wahoo, their mascot. Maybe you celebrated Columbus Day without a second thought. Maybe you had a headdress in your costume closet that someone gifted you.

Probably your education didn’t teach you to question any of that. You might have learned briefly about the relocation of Native peoples, skimming over the accompanying genocide. Perhaps a teacher or two guided you in creating Pilgrim hats and feathered headbands for a beautiful “reenactment” of a Thanksgiving feast that never really happened.

Today, we can do better. We know more. We are empowered to make a difference in the crisis of how the Indigenous nations of the Americas are viewed and talked about. We can help fight stereotyping and misinformation by including many voices from native Nations in our curriculum.

It’s vitally important that we do this. Did you know that native teens experience the highest rate of suicide of any population group in the United States? That their high school dropout rates are double the national average? (Center for Native American Youth) Four out of five native women have experienced violence of some kind, and more than half have experienced sexual violence. The numbers of missing and murdered native women are truly terrifying. (Indian Law Resource Center)

Today, I’m sharing some things we can do to help learn about, celebrate and share Indigenous voices in our classrooms.

Let me say, from the beginning, that it’s difficult to put texts by authors from Indigenous nations into a genre. I took “American Indian Literature” in graduate school – my professor pointed to The Smithsonian’s choice to call their new museum dedicated to Native cultures “The National Museum of the American Indian.” Many people discuss “Native American Literature.” But the truth is, there are over five hundred separate Native nations within the United States. Each has a separate culture with different traditions and norms. They cannot really be blanketed together into a single genre, nor could you expect a student coming from one nation to necessarily feel a connection with stories coming from another. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best here!

#1 Follow @Project562 and @_illuminatives on Instagram.

Both of these projects showcase what’s going on in the modern world of  North American Native cultures. They share ideas, photographs, and cultural reference points to help expand public perception about what it means to be part of Indigenous nations today. They are wonderful resources you can draw on when building a unit around a Native American novel, short story, series of songs, or films, especially Project 562. Illuminative is a new nonprofit, and I imagine it will continue to build helpful collections of stories, resources, and media you can share with students. They do already have an Insight and Action Guide worth checking out.


“Created and led by Native peoples, IllumiNative is a new nonprofit initiative designed to increase the visibility of Natives in American society.” -Illuminatives Instagram Profile










A post shared by IllumiNatives (@_illuminatives) on 

Project 562

“Created by Matika Wilbur, Project 562 is a multi-year national photography project dedicated to photographing over 562 federally recognized tribes in The United States resulting in an unprecedented repository of imagery and oral histories that accurately portrays contemporary Native Americans. This creative, consciousness-shifting work will be widely distributed through national curricula, artistic publications, exhibitions, and online portals.” –Project 562 Website









A post shared by Matika Wilbur (@project_562) on

#2 Search out accessible #ownvoices texts featuring Native Authors

There are a lot of wonderful #ownvoices texts by Native American authors. I asked my friend Alexandra Patterson, head of an amazing library at a large independent school, for her top recommendations. These would be strong additions to literature circles, choice units, or class curricula. They’d definitely be great on independent reading shelves too. (I’ll be talking about denser fictional texts suited to higher levels and more teacher guidance later on). I’ll link them here to their Goodreads pages, and briefly excerpt a description from the Goodreads website for each.

Here’s the list:

Hearts Unbroken, by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Description from Goodreads: “When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off and dumps him over e-mail. It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time with her family and friends and working on the school newspaper.”

Apple in the Middle, by Dawn Quigley
Description from Goodreads: “Apple Starkington turned her back on her Native American heritage the moment she was called a racial slur. Not that she really even knew HOW to be an Indian in the first place. Too bad the white world doesn’t accept her either. “

Code Talker, by Joseph Brucha (Smithsonian Code Talker Exhibition companion website)
Description from Goodreads: “The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII-includes the actual Navajo Code and rare photos. Although more than 400 Navajos served in the military during World War II as top-secret code talkers, even those fighting shoulder to shoulder with them were not told of their covert function.”

If I Ever Get out of Here, by Eric Gansworth
Description from Goodreads: “Lewis “Shoe” Blake is used to the joys and difficulties of life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975: the joking, the Fireball games, the snow blowing through his roof. What he’s not used to is white people being nice to him — people like George Haddonfield, whose family recently moved to town with the Air Force.”

The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline
Description from Goodreads: “In a futuristic world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America’s Indigenous people, and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world.”

A Girl called Echo, by Katherine Vermette
Description from Goodreads: “Echo Desjardins, a 13-year-old Métis girl adjusting to a new home and school, is struggling with loneliness while separated from her mother. Then an ordinary day in Mr. Bee’s history class turns extraordinary, and Echo’s life will never be the same.”

#Not Your Princess: Voices of Native American Women (an anthology)
Description from Goodreads: “Whether looking back to a troubled past or welcoming a hopeful future, the powerful voices of Indigenous women across North America resound in this book. In the same style as the best-selling Dreaming in Indian, #NotYourPrincess presents an eclectic collection of poems, essays, interviews, and art that combine to express the experience of being a Native woman. “

You could also dive deeper, looking at lists like Los Angeles Public Library’s “Native American Young Adult Fiction you need to Read” and Bookriot’s “6 New Novels by Indigenous Authors.”

The American Indian Library Association has a great list of Young Adult Recommendations, as well as lists of picture books and middle school texts.

#3 Explore the Poetry of our 2019 National Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo is our 23rd poet laureate, and a member of the Muscogee (Creek) nation. You can find her books here or look at some of her individual works, like “Eagle Poem”, “Remember,” and one I find particularly powerful, “She had some Horses.

#4 Dive Deep into a Complex Work with Advanced Students

In my graduate school class, we studied the authors N. Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn), Louise Erdrich (Tracks), James Welch (Fools Crow) and Leslie Marmon Silko (Ceremony). As might be expected, many of the texts dove into complex and difficult issues. I found them all powerful, and all difficult and intense. The text I felt was most suitable for my high school students, and which I later taught and had a very positive experience with, was Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko. This book is absolutely stunning, and I’d really recommend it for your A.P. or advanced elective syllabus. Check out the Penguin Reader’s Guide for an in-depth description of the novel and a starter set of questions for discussion.

#5 If you’re going to Teach Alexie, Consider the Context

Sherman Alexie was, perhaps, the most accessible and popular Native author of books for teens over the last decade. However, he has become a focal point in the #metoo movement and many people now question whether his popular work, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, should still be taught, given the many allegations of sexual abuse against him.

Can art be divided from the artist? This is a question with no right answer. But I do think it’s important to be considering this question if you are going to teach Alexie. You might be interested to read this reflection by professor Jeff Spanke about his experience trying to teach Alexie immediately after the truth came out about him, titled, “Magnificent Things and Terrible Men: Teaching Sherman Alexie in the Age of #Metoo.”

If you are going to teach the novel, consider asking your students what they think. Maybe having them research other artists who have done terrible things, or writing position papers, or holding a class debate on the subject. You might be surprised by how powerfully your students will engage with this topic.

#6 Listen to the episode, “Recovering the Voice of Native Americans in the Classroom” from the Teaching While White Podcast

This podcast, featuring an interview with Claudia Fox Tree, is really helpful in changing the way you think about teaching aspects of history and culture in America. Listening led me into Fox Tree’s Collection of Resources, including many short videos about Columbus, cultural appropriation, and the issue of culturally appropriated mascots.

One of the videos I found while exploring Claudia Fox Tree’s website was the video below, from New Mexico’s PBS station, addressing the issue of Native mascots.


#7 Check out the Resources of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian

The museum network has a helpful resource called Native Knowledge 360, as well as a page called 10 Essential Understandings that can help you as you teach about Native cultures. If you’re in the D.C. or New York area, you might also consider a visit with your students or attending one of the museum’s professional development seminars. 

#8 Put Thanksgiving in Context

Thanksgiving is a fraught holiday. No matter how you interpret the documents, letters, and stories that have helped define modern Thanksgiving, there’s no question that one of the groups of people featured in the so-called “First Thanksgiving” went on to kill millions of people in the other group featured. It’s good to keep this in mind in approaching how you portray this holiday in class. One resource kit you might find helpful is here: Decolonizing Thanksgiving: A Toolkit for Combatting Racism in Schools.

#8 Feature Artists and Leaders in your Space

I’ve shared the free posters at Amplifier here on this blog before. And I still love them. One of the posters in the “We the Future” series features Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a young indigenous climate activist and hip hop artist. Creating displays in your independent reading area of wonderful Native Nations authors or of our poet laureate’s poems would be other ways to bring more visibility of Indigenous artists into your space.


I hope you find these resources helpful! Do you have more that you’ve used that you’d like to share? Please do link up in the comments below.

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I'm Betsy

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  • SO many thanks to you for posting this! We have Native American students in my school, and I am always looking for more relevant texts to use in my classes!!

  • We just finished a unit centered around Joy Harjo's poetry collection, "An American Sunrise." Wow, it was so powerful and poignant! This text by our poet laureate is truly a must read. My students were so inspired! They created poetry, songs, artwork, dance, and some of the best literary analysis I've ever read.


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