“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” –Thomas King, The Truth About Stories
Current K-12 teaching about Native Americans tends to focus solely on the past—the long-dead past. This gives students the impression that Native peoples no longer exist and the treatment of their cultural practices and symbols are fair game for misappropriation, disrespect and abuse. By not including real, living, contemporary Native peoples in discussion of Native experiences, we are doing these populations and our students a huge disservice. Our silence leads to ignorance.
I can say this with confidence because every non-Native student I have encountered in the teaching of Contemporary Indigenous Rhetorics at the college level has openly admitted that they know nothing beyond “pilgrims and Indians,” a little bit of historical life practices for a random and minimal selection of nations (e.g., foods the Iroquois ate pre-contact and costumes worn by Inuit women for marriage ceremonies), that abhorrent Thanksgiving myth and Disney’s Pocahontas. As educators, we are responsible for educating students and sharing with them the truth about the world. In doing so, they are better equipped to navigate it. But when it comes to discussing and representing Indigenous peoples, we fall woefully short of the mark.
The inclusion of contemporary Native American cultures matters. You may not have the luxury of spending an entire unit on contemporary Native peoples, but every little bit of new knowledge that you can incorporate will open your students’ eyes a little wider to reality. And the widening of those eyes means that Indigenous peoples will become more visible. Everyone benefits, so consider using some of the information below as you develop and rethink your approach.
- For K-12 books written by Indigenous authors, visit Birchbark Books’ educators’ page.
- For titles and descriptions of movies written, directed and acted primarily by Native American practitioners and artists, visit the American Indian Film Festival.
- For news and journalism from Indigenous perspectives, visit Indian Country Today.
- For streaming music by current Native songwriters and musicians (both traditional powwow and contemporary offerings such as blues, country and rap), visit NativeRadio.
- For Native American fashion trends and designers, visit Beyond Buckskin or read Native Max.
- For current political and tribal governance information, pick a nation and visit its official website (e.g., the Osage Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee or Citizen Potawatomi Nation). Most nations have official websites, so a Google search with the tribe’s name and “official website” should suffice.
- For Native American stand-up comedy, check out JR Redwater, Jim Ruel and the Ladies of Native Comedy.
For an introduction to the history of Indigenous enslavement on land that is now the United States, stream our 12-minute classroom film The Forgotten Slavery of Our Ancestors, appropriate for grades 6-12.
I’ve used these resources to provide more nuanced information about Native cultures in my own classes. Three weeks into my Introduction to Contemporary Indigenous Rhetorics course, during a discussion of Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories, a student spoke up, “More people need to be aware of these issues and these peoples. We need to do something about this!”
Instead of saying, “Well, that’s not in the syllabus,” I responded, “What do you want to do?”
This open invitation to a group of critically engaged, energetic, caring students resulted in an Indigenous Awareness event during our campus Diversity Week. The conversation evolved from an idea to a tangible event attended by over 100 students; from a discussion-based class to a lively, collaborative act of public activism that grew spontaneously and holistically out of a simple plea.
This simple-yet-complex idea compelled my students to take action in a substantial way. King repeats this assertion—“The truth about stories is that’s all we are”—throughout his book, and it prompted my students to ask, “Who is telling the story? How do our stories shape and define us? When do stories hurt and when do they help?” These are questions that reverberated throughout our early conversations. Three weeks into the semester, having started with next-to-zero knowledge about contemporary Indigenous peoples, they decided that this subject was important enough to share with the entire school.
The education landscape is riddled with severe budget cuts, the frustrating reality of mandated curricular objectives and the potentially devastating effects of standardized testing. But as my students have proven, if they are given the right environment for critical engagement with true stories of living Native peoples, the end result can be something that transcends conventional expectations and rises to the level of creating more accurate memories and planting more truthful seeds.