As English educators, we strive to make our ELA lessons as interesting and inclusive as possible. However, textbooks don’t make this easy, especially when it comes to teaching Early American Literature. The thing is, there is no Early American Literature without Native American Literature and adding indigenous voices can help you with all your unit planning goals.
In fact, adding Native American texts to your Early American literature unit not only adds perspective, but it also makes your study a lot more engaging! Let’s face it, colonial texts can be brutally boring. I’m going to give you specific lesson plan ideas for how to shake things up and discover the vibrant world of Native American stories and wisdom, but first, I want to introduce you to indigenous educator C. Toneekia Hernandez who I worked with to create this Native and Early American Literature Unit.
Tips from an Indigenous Educator
My name is C. Toneekia Hernandez. I am a Northern Paiute from the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley. My hometown is a very rural reservation which is located in southern Idaho and northern Nevada This is where I was raised. Continuing that tradition, it is where I now reside and raise my children.
While I was in high school, it wasn’t until my junior year when I was exposed to another Native American in our curriculum. We read Prison Writings by Leonard Peltier. It was crazy when I realized this was the first time I was reading about a “real” Native from the perspective of a real Native. Everything else I read until that point and even after that was written by non Natives. Unfortunately, that was as far as I went with that thought process. I wasn’t given the tools to keep going and wouldn’t be able to pick up this thought for another ten years.
When I graduated from Boise State in 2017 with my BA in English Literature, I had ideas for days on how to be the teacher I thought I wanted to be. I wanted to be immersed in my culture, my traditions, people who looked like me, people I shared and understood qualities with. Teaching the future of my community the things I wasn’t able to learn.
My concerns about Native American representation in literature reappeared around the same time I made this realization. But this time it lit a fire inside me. I knew this was going to be a main objective in my teaching career. It felt so important and I understood things differently. The kids at home needed to know they exist outside the reservation, and they exist in positive ways. They need to know they are protagonists too, not the wolf boy who doesn’t get the vampire-loving girl. They need to know they can write about traumas and not always be the trauma. We exist beyond what Hollywood portrays, and we do all kinds of positive things.
The do’s and don’ts of Teaching Native American Literature
Teachers need to know these same things. Native Americans exist and we exist outside of the classroom/Hollywood stereotypes. I’ve curated a small and simple list of things to keep in mind when teaching Native American literature:
- Native Americans are not one whole identity. It’s rather a community. There are 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States (there are also state recognized tribes). That means there are 573 different tribes that have 573 different languages, beliefs, stories, and ways of life. Often I see and hear of people/the internet grouping Native Americans together as if it is all the same: ”This is an old Native American story,” “The Native Americans believed…” When possible, name the Native Nation the story belongs to.
- Native Americans and Thanksgiving. Every November it never fails. Little white kids are parading around with painted faces and colorful construction paper feathers. Some teachers even give their students “Native American names” and decided to reenact the infamous meal. What the actual education? Former educator and journalist Sarah Manning writes this great article on this issue, and you can find more Thanksgiving ELA ideas here.
- There is more to Native American history than smallpox and boarding schools. Usually most history textbooks give you this much information, but who are textbooks written by? Throughout the 20th and 21st century Native Americans have accomplished more than they are given credit for. We are still here and overcoming colonization while living in it. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz is a great resource.
- Sherman Alexie isn’t the only author. Add authentic Native stories to your classroom library. Here is a list I’ve created. Keep in mind this is not a complete list but rather a starting point with YA, Adult, and Pedagogy: Indigenous Book List
As of today I am currently continuing my process of being the best teacher I can be. I am about to start my first semester of graduate school for Curriculum and Instruction With the University of Idaho. I was selected out of a handful of applicants to participate in the Indigenous Knowledge for Effective Education Program, which is specifically for future and current Native American teachers. Here I will learn specific pedagogy for Native American students along with common western education practices and how to combine the two.
Upon C. Toneekia Hernandez ‘s choice, 25% of this Native American and Early American Literature Unit will go to the American Indian College Fund so that others may continue to grow and inspire as she has.
I learned so much by working with C. Toneekia Hernandez, and I hope that her story and tips have inspired your teaching!
Pairing ideas for teaching Native American Literature:
Pairing texts is essential for adding perspective and diverse voices throughout your American Literature curriculum, especially within your Early American unit. Here are some Native American literature pairing ideas to help you get started!
Pairing Native American Creation Stories with Puritan Texts
So many times we teach biblical allusions without first acknowledging the many other spiritual beliefs and creation stories that make up our collective landscape. While there are hundreds of Native American creation stories from various tribes, I love using “The World on the Turtle’s Back” derived from the Iroquois. This Iroquois creation story has lovely literary imagery, intriguing moral dilemmas, and sound inferencing tasks. And because of a few key elements, it makes an ideal critical thinking pairing for the Judeo- Christian creation story. You can find this single lesson here: The World on the Turtle’s Back or within this Native American and Early American Unit Plan.
Another engaging pairing is to have students read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards alongside Sagoyewatha’s Religious Freedom Speech. You can also find this text set with these perspective pairing resources.
Pairing Native American Poetry with Colonial Poetry
We all know that the Common Core standards are big on thematic pairings. Poetry is one of the easiest ways to add rich writing and diverse voices to any unit. Poets.org has put together a beautiful list of Native American Poetry that can be used for a variety of instruction. I start my Native American and Early American Unit off with “Carrying Our Words” by Ofelia Zepeda. One of the lines in this poem reads, “With our words we are able to speak with the sounds of thunderous waves.” I set the tone for this unit by asking, “What is America’s story and who gets the privilege of sounding as thunderous waves?”
To make a full circle moment, the unit also ends with poetry in the format of a choice board which allows students to reflect on Native, African, colonial, and modern American voices. Then, students are encouraged to realize that all voices matter and get to “sound as thunderous waves” by writing about an issue that is important to them.
Pairing Native American Speeches with Founding Speeches
As C. Toneekia Hernandez points out, it’s important to address hard history in the humanities. One of the key founding texts that is a staple in American Literature classrooms is Patrick Henry’s famous speech to the Virginia Convention “Give Me Liberty or Give me Death!” While I do use this text to address rhetoric as well as its importance in America’s history, I also use Chief Tecumseh’s Speech to the Osages in which he urges tribes to join together to protect their land and freedom from the colonizers. Not only does Tecumseh’s speech serve as a perfect scaffolding tool for teaching rhetoric and speech elements, but it also gives a different point-of-view to offset opposing goals of the early Americans.
Pairing Important Native American Texts with Founding Texts
Did you know that The Iroquois Confederacy, founded by the Great Peacemaker in 1142, “is the oldest living participatory democracy on earth” (PBS). Yes, that means it predates America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Some even claim it may have inspired our founding symbolism and ideals of democracy. One fun Early American activity is to have students predict what the symbolism in the Great Seal of the United States might mean then research how Native American concepts shape the imagery.
Pairing ELA Skills with Native American Literature
Since ELA is skill-based, it’s possible to teach any skill using Native American literature all year long. The examples above are evidence of this, and here’s a summary with even more ideas:
- Teach symbolism using a story like this PBS animation
- Teach rhetorical strategies using speeches like Patrick Henry and Chief Tecumseh
- Teach poetic devices using Native American poetry
- Teach perspective using articles like this from the Smithsonian
- Teach holiday themes like in these Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day podcasts
- Teach figurative language and more using Native American picture books
- Teach the joy of free-choice reading using Native American YA books
- Teach storytelling concepts like in this Cherokee Story Slam podcast.
- Teach theme with pairings like all of the resources in this unit
I hope that this blog post has inspired you to think about how you begin and continue your American Literature curriculum. If you would like to save time planning your Early American Literature unit, download these resources here: Native, African, Early American Colonial Text Set Unit : Perspective Pairings