In my explorations of contemporary Indigenous art and activism, one of the messages I have discovered over and over from Native writers, activists and artists is the danger of erasure.
Many people outside the Native community are simply not seeing Native people – singers, actors, fashion designers, poets, producers, chefs, dancers, writers. Because of this issue, it might feel to some of our students that Indigenous cultures are a part of the past, not vibrant communities creating and impacting the world in positive ways at this very moment.
But we can do something about it.
Today, in episode 167, I want to share ways you can spotlight contemporary Indigenous voices in your classroom and curriculum. By making living Indigenous leaders an integral part of students’ learning experiences, you’ll show both your Indigenous students and all the rest just what wonderful voices in the Indigenous community have been waiting for a chance to be heard.
So let’s talk about how to feature contemporary Indigenous voices – on your walls, in your research projects, on your shelves, in your American Dream units, and in your writing prompts.
You can listen in to episode 167 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.
Feature Indigenous Leadership On your Walls
You know how I feel about visuals. A whole lot of communication takes place through imagery in the world today, and there’s a lot you can do in your classroom to help students see diverse leaders and role models. Amplifier Art is my favorite source for (free) classroom posters, and they are doing incredible things.
The Indigenous Resistance section (choose it under categories) of Amplifier Art’s Free Downloads section features the Thriving Peoples Thriving Places campaign, with dozens of posters you can print for your classroom.
From the Amplifer website, “The Thriving Peoples Thriving Places campaign was a collaboration between Nia Tero and Amplifier, and uplifts the stories of fifteen Indigenous women leaders from locales spanning from the Philippines and New Zealand to the Brazilian Amazon and the Arctic.”
Feature Indigenous Artists and Activists Through Research Projects
Research projects present another creative way to highlight Indigenous leaders, artists, and activists.
Let students create research carousels, infographics, or displays for the school hallway featuring artists and activists making a difference, and include Indigenous leaders like these in your list of suggestions for students.
Matika Wilbur, a photographer who moved her whole life into a van to crisscross the United States and photograph all 562 Indigenous peoples to create positive representation with her art.
From the Project 562 “About” page: “Created by Matika Wilbur, Project 562 is a multi-year national photography project dedicated to photographing over 562 federally recognized Tribes, urban Native communities, Tribes fighting for federal recognition and Indigenous role models in what is currently-known-as 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.”
Sean Sherman, “The Sioux Chef,” is a James Beard Award winning chef and restaurateur who is bringing Indigenous foods into the spotlight with his cookbook and highly rated restaurants. From his website, “We are committed to revitalizing Native American Cuisine and in the process we are re-identifying North American Cuisine and reclaiming an important culinary culture long buried and often inaccessible.”
Bethany Yellowtail is a young, up-and-coming fashion designer bringing an Indigenous perspective to her popular designs as well as an Indigenous perspective to modern fashion conversations. The “alter-Native” documentary shares pieces of her story through engaging short episodes on Youtube.
Artist Jaime Black created The REDress Project to bring greater awareness to the many missing and murdered Indigenous women who do not get the national news spotlight other groups do.
Spotlight Contemporary Indigenous Authors On your Shelves
Of course, one of the top ways to bring Indigenous voices into our ELA classrooms is through the books we choose. Whether it’s a selection for First Chapter Friday or Book Trailer Tuesday, an addition to your identity literature circles, or a new book for your whole class curriculum, including contemporary Indigenous authors is an important choice.
We are Water Protectors is a beautifully-illustrated children’s book to display and use in class (check out episode 148, The Power of Children’s Books for Older Kids, with Pernille Ripp, if you need some ideas for how to use picture books).
Healer of the Water Monster would be great in middle grade identity book clubs / lit circles or as a choice reading option. I’d suggest The Birchbark House as a whole class read.
#NotYourPrincess is a multi-genre anthology of many Native American women sharing photography, art, poetry, songs, and stories about their experiences. I’d recommend every high school teacher have this book available for choice reading, but also to pull short pieces from throughout the year while crafting units around various themes and essential questions.
A Snake Falls to Earth is a powerful book blending fantasy, storytelling, and environmentalism with a young Indigenous protagonist. It would make a great feature for First Chapter Friday and in high school book clubs / lit circles.
Ceremony is my rec for senior electives or A.P. classes. This is a stunning, powerful, lyrical book dealing in heavy subjects best suited for older kids.
Feature Joy Harjo’s Poetry In American Dream Units
Maybe you teach a unit on The American Dream? Perhaps it involves Gatsby? Consider adding a conversation about Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s poem, “An American Sunrise” to it.
While there are so many of Joy Harjo’s poems you could share, “An American Sunrise” is accessible and easy to connect with big thematic questions on the American Dream.
As a plus, it references Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool,” which you can bring in alongside it.
Write about Pocahantas and the Power of the Storyteller
I first learned about the ownvoices movement and hashtag a few years ago. The idea is that there is a special power in hearing a story – even a fictional one – from an author who has connected experiences.
So, for example, a fiction book about the experience of growing up Asian-American in a small predominantly white town written by an Asian-American author is going to have a different relevance than if it was written by a white author.
A book about a gay teen trying to make the national soccer team is going to have a different relevance if written by a gay author than if written by a straight author.
Does the #ownvoices movement mean that authors can never use their imagination or research characters? No, definitely not! Just that there is special power in a story built on your life experience.
You’re probably thinking this is quite a tangent, so let me bring it back. While we cannot learn about Pocahantas life from her own perspective, there are so many different accounts of it from different groups. Looking at these different accounts with your students provides an opportunity to consider the power of the storyteller, and to ask what group’s version it makes sense to pay the most attention to.
With that in mind, I’d share these different takes on Pocahantas’ life with students.
The Disney Song, “Colors of the Wind,” which currently has 86 million views on Youtube.
The National Park Service’s version of Pocahantas’ history, shared on the first part of this web page.
The relatively recent oral history account of Pocahantas’ life, shared on the second part of this web page.
Perspectives from many Indigenous people about what Pocahantas means to them in the “Pocahantas” episode of the Telling our Twisted Histories Podcast.
After sharing the Disney version, the National Parks Version, the oral history account published by Indigenous authors, and the contemporary interview podcast, invite students to write about which account or accounts they think deserve(s) their attention. There are many ways you could extend the writing or eventually move it into discussion.
Is the #ownvoices concept relevant here?
What role does money play in telling and changing the stories of the past? Power?
What other stories of America’s past are being told in different ways by different people? How can you decide what to believe?
Let’s Wrap it Up
OK, my friend. I’m sure you have more ideas to add, and I’d love to hear them in the comments below! But for now, these are starting points I believe in to help us fight erasure and feature contemporary Indigenous Voices in our schools. Let’s showcase Indigenous artists, activists and leaders on our walls, in our projects, on our shelves, in our American dream units, and in our writing prompts.
You should add The Marrow Thieves by Cherrie Dimaline to your book list!
Thanks for the suggestion, Heather! It’s a great novel, but it’s one that I’m unsure about recommending because of how much disturbing content is inside. I think it has to be taught really carefully, with a lot of background information and help to understand the themes. I wouldn’t want anyone to add it to their course without pre-reading it and making sure that their students will be OK with the content.