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What One Teacher Has Done, Part II: 

Sensitizing Nine-Year-Olds to Native American Stereotypes

by Jane Califf

My recent experiences in attempting to sensitize fourth- and fifth-grade students to stereotypes of Native Americans (American Indians) in trade books have confirmed my long-held faith in young people’s intelligence, and in the possibility of freeing future U.S. generations from biased perceptions of themselves and of others.  The methods I have been using in my classroom are by no means fully developed; I must reexamine and work towards improving them.  However, I wish to share them because they have been successful on several counts and may prove useful to other teachers in their efforts to develop awareness and analytical skills in their students.


My overall classroom objectives were to help my students:

  • recognize and identify with the humanity of Native American people;

  • understand the diversity and richness of Native American cultures;

  • appreciate Native American values and lifestyles;

  • understand the oppression to which Native Peoples have been subjected;

  • perceive the media misrepresentation of Native Peoples; and, finally,

  • realize that change can and should be fought for.


What might be called the first phase of our classroom study (a two-month period of 45-minute classes approximately twice weekly) focused on Native American life and on the interaction of Native Americans with the first European settlers.


I posted colorful charts of Native American clothing, toys and implements obtained from Akwesasne Notes1, avoiding the inauthentic, commercially produced items often found in classrooms.  We noted the skills and imagination required to produce these materials and discussed the significance of certain forms of decoration (for example, a particular culture’s headdress might we worn only on certain ceremonial occasions). We discussed the wisdom underlying many Native American practices, such as leaving a wide space between a village and the woods so that forest fires would not destroy the people’s homes.  As part of the study of lifestyle, the art teacher led a project focusing on housing, dress, and diet in which, among other things, the children constructed models of Hopi houses.


We talked about Native American values—the respect for nature and for the elderly, emphasis on sharing through communal ownership of property. We listened to recordings of traditional Native music.  (Later we listened to Buffy St. Marie, a contemporary Native American folksinger, and discussed her song about the Native take-over of Alcatraz.)


Regarding Native American relations with the Pilgrims, we discussed how the former helped the newcomers survive.  For example, we noted the Pilgrims’ ignorance about the local flora and fauna, about certain foods which they had never known in Europe, about how to cultivate the land and grow certain crops.


We then discussed the genocide committed by the white settlers against Native Americans. I feel that while it is important for children to understand Native cultures and values, it is equally important for them to learn about the oppression suffered by Native Peoples in the past and today.  I explained how the newcomers gradually began to encroach on Native land in violation of numerous treaties signed to protect that land, and how the settlers killed Native Americans who resisted the encroachment.  (Here, I was particularly concerned with countering the widespread image of Native Americans as wanton savages who, for no good reason, rampage and kill.  Role-playing was a useful device in this regard.  See “What One Teacher Has Done, Part I, Role-Play in the Classroom” on my website). To underscore the monumental nature of the injustice done to Native Americans by the settlers, I read aloud from materials written by Native American themselves, including the story of Black Hawk (see Resources p. 31) and articles from Akwesasne Notes about the ongoing fight for land and water rights.  Here, I also used protest posters.


We discussed how reservations come into being and the poor quality of life in these areas—the lack of hospitals and jobs, the forced separation of children from their families to attend faraway boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  In response to questions about why such conditions are allowed to prevail, I explained that the white people who make the laws which govern Native American life are continuing to take Native land and resources (coal, timber, oil, etc.) without making compensation and without regard for the rights and needs of Native Peoples.  In retrospect, I’m sorry I did not introduce the concept of racism more openly and will do so in the future.


Discussion of Native American oppression and negative white perceptions of Native Peoples led into a consideration of Native American images in various media.  We talked about misrepresentations of Native American speech (the “ugh, how” syndrome) in advertisements, books, etc., drawing upon our knowledge of the reality that Native Americans do not express themselves in grunts and groans, either in their own languages or in English.  We also talked about the constant depiction of Native Peoples wearing feathers and brandishing tomahawks.


At this point, the children became alert to the examples of offenses against Native Americans in everyday life.  One student told the class that she had not permitted her mother to buy her a book bag with a red-faced, befeathered “Indian” on it because “it makes fun of Indians.”  When another student appeared in class one day clad in a shirt with a picture of an “Indian” on it, a discussion ensued as to whether “Calvin is making fun of Indians.” The concept that such images dehumanize Native Peoples and turn them into objects is an important one for students to understand.


The second phase of our study was now in progress.  Armed with our newly-acquired knowledge of the histories and cultures of Native Peoples, we turned our attention to the depiction of Native Americans in children’s books.


I brought into class a collection of books that are full of stereotypes and other flaws from the school and local public libraries. (My selection was based on the concept that flawed books are effective consciousness-raising tools.) I also brought the booklet American Indian Authors for Young Readers published by the association on American Indian Affairs.  I explained to my students that the booklet tells how Native Americans had carefully read 600 children’s books and had discarded most of them because they did not accurately reflect Native American life and histories.  Since almost all of the discarded books had been written by non-Native Americans, the author of the bibliography had decided to recommend only books written by Native Peoples.


Why? I asked my students. A short discussion ensued which ended in general agreement that Native American people would be more likely to know about their own cultures than someone who was an outsider to these cultures.  Then, I listed the following criteria on a large piece of paper:


  1. Look at the illustrations.  Do they show all Native Americans looking alike, red in color or as savages?

  2. Listen to the words.  Do they imply that Native Americans were/are naturally wild and warlike or that they attacked peaceful settlers or other Native Peoples for no reason?

  3. From what you’ve studied about Native Americans, does the author seem to be portraying their lives accurately?

  4. Does the author give the national name of the people such as Navajo, Hopi, Mohawk or Cherokee; or does the book just say “Indians,” implying that all Native American are the same?

  5. Do Native Peoples speak in pidgin English, in grunts, or do they speak in sentences as all people do?


I said to the class: “Guided by these criteria, I want you to ask yourselves, ‘If I were a Native American, would I like this book? Does it seem to portray my people fairly?’”


Throughout our book survey, I used the method of asking leading questions or giving clues to elicit responses from the students.  For example, I would read a sentence from a book and if the students seemed perplexed and failed to comment, I would read the sentence again emphasizing a particular word or words.  Regarding illustrations, I might ask, “What color are the Native People?” to focus attention on the flaming red skin color which often characterizes pictures of Native Americans.


We began with the book More Hand Shadows by Henry Bursill.  This book tells how to make shadow patterns on a wall and on page 14 shows how to create a “Wild Indian.” We looked at how to make a pig, a swan, a sheep; then we came to the “Wild Indian.” “Should we learn how to make this hand shadow?” I asked.  Everyone said, “No!” “Why not?” “Because Indian people aren’t wild,” a child said indignantly.


Next, I held up Will I Have A Friend? By Meriam Cohen.  The story takes place in a kindergarten or first grade, and on one page we see a child running around with a feather and headband on his head.  On another page, he is waving a tomahawk.  “What about this book?” I asked. “This book is no good,” a girl replied.  “Remember when those Indian dancers came to our school? Charles made a war whoop and one of the dancers said that was making fun of Indians.” “It makes you think that Indians just run around with tomahawks and make funny noises,” said another student.


Next we looked at The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds, a Newbery Award winner in 1941.  I summarized the story: A Dutch family moves to Albany, New York, in 1757.  Father goes off with the militia to fight the “Indians,” leaving his wife at home with their son and daughter.  We looked at pictures of the mother and children.  A two-page spread in the middle of the book shows them peacefully gazing into a valley and at the mountains beyond.  Other pictures show the mother kissing her children goodnight, talking to her son, and the baby sitting happily on the edge of a bed.


The mother is very worried about an attack by Native Americans.  One day she goes out to the garden, and suddenly she sees them.  I read aloud the description in the book:


There were five of them, dark shapes on the road, coming from the brick house.  They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then another coming up, like dogs sifting up the scent of food. Gertrude felt her heart pound hard; then it seemed to stop altogether. (p. 39)


“How does that sound to you?” I asked.  “It sounds like the Indians are animals, like dogs,” said one child. “Now look at these two pictures,” I said. One showed the mother running away from the “Indians” who are holding tomahawks or knives and wearing scanty clothing, with two or three feathers in their hair.  A two-page spread in flaming red shows three of the Native men close to the cabin, one having just thrown his tomahawk into the door close to the mother’s head.  Her son has just fired the matchlock gun and the three Native Americans are dying.


What do you think of these illustrations?” I asked. “The Indians look scary, naked, wild, evil, mean,” the children exclaimed.


“How do the settlers appear by comparison?” I asked.  “They look peaceful,” a student volunteered.  “It makes you feel sorry for them and angry at the Indians, as if this family is just fighting back to protect their home.”


“That’s not right,” a voice cried from the back of the group.  “The Indians had a right to be mad.  Those Dutch people took their land so they started the trouble in the first place.  This book makes you just be mad at the Indians.”


“That book doesn’t say the names of the Indians!”  “It makes you think Indians are crazy people!” “This book doesn’t say that the Dutch took the Indians’ land!” All of these comments poured forth from my students. They were angry.


On another day, I gave the children the following passage to comment on from Tomahawks and Trouble by William O’Steele:


Lairds’ fingers tightened on his rifle.  It was hard to believe there could be varmints as mean as Indians in this world.  He’d heard folks say the only good Indian was a dead Indian, and he believed it. (pp.16-17)


Jackie, one of my students wrote:


It does not sound right to me at all because he is calling a Indian a animal but a Indian is not a animal.  It was not fair for him to say that the only good Indian was a dead Indian and he should not believed that but he should believe this that the only good Indian is a good Indian.


In a later lesson, I told the children that not all Native Americans are portrayed fighting with settlers.  An example of another type of book is Red Fox and His Canoe by Robert Benchley.  I read the first page aloud: “Like all Indian boys, Red Fox had a canoe to go fishing in.  But he wanted a bigger one.”


Noel said: “What about the Navajo and the Hopi Indians? They lived in the desert in dry places.  How could every boy have a canoe?”


We discussed why authors and illustrators might make mistakes in their depiction of Native Americans.  The children concluded, “They are not Indians.” “They read books when they were small that did not tell the truth about Indians.”


I read the rest of Red Fox and His Canoe to the class and the children criticized various sections.


We discussed what could be done about the offensive images of Native Americans in the books we had reviewed and decided that sending our criticisms to the authors or publishers might help prevent future mistakes.  Garrick and Calvin decided to write to Mr. Benchley and Joy began writing to Arnold Lobel, the illustrator.


The children were very excited to receive answers to the letters they had written.  Joy read her answer from Mr. Lobel to the class.  He wrote that he “did not try to make (Red Fox) into a really accurate depiction,” and that the book is a “humorous fanciful story.” “I think he’s making excuses,” she said. “Why?” I asked.  “Because if he said that he made a mistake, then people wouldn’t buy the book.”


Mr. Benchley wrote that the story was a fable.  Some children thought if the story was a fable, maybe it was all right not to portray Native American life faithfully.  Others felt that children might believe everything the author wrote because he didn’t say in the front of the book that it was a fable.


When Thanksgiving came, we discussed the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people who met them.  I read from The First Thanksgiving by Lou Rogers:


When fall came, things were better.  The Pilgrims had homes.  They had all the food they could eat….


Governor Bradford said, “God has been good to us.  We have homes, and we have food.  We can go to our own church.  We should thank God for all these things.” (p. 22)


As I finished reading, a hand was waving in the air.  “What about the Wampanoag Indians? Why don’t they thank them?  The Pilgrims would all be dead if they didn’t show them how to plant food and how to hunt.”


In addition to reviewing this “holiday” book, I thought it was also important to expose the children to a Native American perspective on the holiday itself.  As a departure from the traditional (patronizing) displays featured in many schools at Thanksgiving time, I posed a sign (another Akwesasne resource) saying that many Native Americans regard Thanksgiving as a day of mourning and telling why.  I also pointed out to the children that the holiday is not cited on the Akwesasne Calendar.

Around the time of Columbus Day, we reviewed The Cruise of Mr. Christopher Columbus by Sadyebeth and Anson Lowitz.  From an out-loud reading, the children detected many stereotypes and distortions.  Thirteen children volunteered to write letters to an editor at Scholastic Magazines, Inc.  Here are four of them:


Dear Editor,


I read your book.  It made the Indians look like dogs.  Those people talked the way we do and you do but in their language…. When they wanted to give something the book did not tell about what language they spoke.  It just said they spoke Indian.



Scott Dames






Dear Editor,


In The Cruise of Christopher Columbus, why are you making fun of Indians?  In the book the Indians all had the same faces, and they all had their legs high up in the air.  If you were an Indian and they made fun of you I don’t think you would like it…. Another thing is that the book shows that the houses they lived in were made out of wood and large leaves. So try to make the story more better next time.


Sincerilly yours,

Bernadette Smith





Dear Editor,


I don’t like your book called The Cruise of Christopher Columbus.  I didn’t like it because you said things about Indians that weren’t true…. Another thing I didn’t like was on page 69.  It says that Christopher Columbus invited the Indians to Spain, but what really happened was that he stole them!


Censearly, Raymond Miranda





Dear Editor,


I don’t like the way the book says the grown-up Indians are skipping to the beach.  Only kids skip.  The Indians do the same thing at the same time.  I don’t like the way the Indians smeared themselves with paint.  When they put on paint, they do it carefully on their face.


Your enemy,

Steven Rivera






We all waited and soon received an answer from Many Ann Leeb.  She agreed with the criticisms and informed us that Scholastic would no longer carry the book!


One day soon after, I saw Omar painstakingly writing for a long period of time at his desk.  It was a free-period after lunch and all the other children were drawing or playing games.  He was writing a letter to Richard Scarry criticizing his Best Word Book Ever:


Dear Richard Scarry,


I did not like when you drew the Indians like a bear.  Indians do not look like a bear and Indians do not put feathers on their heads, only on special occasions.  I think you can make a better book than Best Word Book Ever.



Omar Sanchez


1Akwesasne Notes, A newspaper of the Mohawk Nation, Upstate New York, is no longer being published


By Jane Califf, as Published in: Unlearning “Indian” Stereotypes, A Teaching Unit for Elementary Teacher and Children’s Librarians, Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1977, pp. 34-38.




Two months after Omar received a reply from Richard Scarry who was living in Switzerland!  His seven-paragraph response included:


“Thank you so much for your letter which I enjoyed reading…It is wonderful to hear from students who care enough about something to write to the person responsible.  That proves you are really interested in your work.”


He said he was sorry Omar did not like his drawing, but he prefers to draw animal characters whom he considers friends “and if one of them does something a little giddy, like wearing his Indian feathers when there is no ceremony, he just does it because he feels proud to wear them, or he does it just for fun. No harm done.”


Although we were all grateful for Mr. Scarry’s letter, most of the class, including Omar, did not agree with his reason for dressing a bear as an “Indian.”


I posted the two letters prominently in our classroom, thanking Omar publicly for his important letter.  This shy boy’s self-confidence improved as he became more appreciated by his classmates.

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