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Indigenize Your Lessons: Indigenous Peoples' Day 2020 - Thoughts And Resources For Educators

Updated: Oct 19



Many teachers feel the tension between wanting to teach the standards, and wanting to give airtime to more marginalized communities. We may feel pressure from faculty, from the government, or from parents. Most of us have been raised and conditioned to value Western knowledge over non Western. This may be unconscious, but it deeply influences our choices over what to teach. 


With this in mind, remember that most teachers have some flexibility over what they teach and how they teach it. Even the most traditional of lesson topics (like Christopher Columbus), can be easily adjusted to uplift Indigenous voices. 


The question I implore educators to ask themselves is: “If I choose to leave *insert topic* out of my classroom this year, will my students be exposed to it somewhere else?” 


My planning team once asked ourselves this question when we were faced with the decision of cutting out either the Renaissance or Mesoamerica from our 4th quarter plans. It seemed blasphemous to leave out The Renaissance, but ultimately we choose to focus on Mesoamerica and the Indigenous perspective of colonialism instead. 


Our students may not have finished the year understanding Humanism, but they did leave with an appreciation of the many engineering, military, medical, and artistic feats of the Maya and Aztecs. They analyzed how value differences between the Indigenous civilizations and Europeans made contact with the Spanish so destructive. They explored how Indigenous, African, and European culture mixed over time, as both Indigenous and African communities found ways to preserve their cultures despite colonial violence. They learned that being Indigenous meant being strong, being resilient, being a survivor. They also came to understand that racism and colorism in Central America today is the result of colonialism, but is not reflective of any inherent weakness on the part of Indigenous or African peoples. Students still practiced all of the skills needed to pass the end of the year state exams, but they did it through content that started with the Indigenous story, not the European one. 


Do I feel bad that students only touched the surface of The Renaissance? Not really. The reality is that they will come across The Renaissance in the countless pieces of pop culture, museums, statues, churches, books, that pay homage to the time period. In a perfect world, teachers would have time to teach it all. When faced with a crunched schedule, however, making the choice that will best prepare students for understanding their world is up to the teacher. In our case, teaching a class of extremely diverse students about the strengths of Indigenous culture was the right choice. 


There are SO many ways to integrate Native voices and perspectives into the classroom. We at Redbud Resource Group compiled a short list of just a few ways you can Indigenize your History classroom in particular. 


1. Start with the Indigenous perspective first, when possible. 


a. For example, teaching about Indigenous people should come before teaching

the Age of Exploration. Teaching about Native Californians should come before

teaching about the mission system. Teaching about Native Californians should

come before teaching about the Gold Rush. 


2. Use the present tense when talking about Indigenous people. Use the past tense only

when talking about a period that occurred in the past.


a. Not sure if the Indigenous people you are discussing continue to exist today?

Look it up! They most likely do. 


3. Feel free to tell the true story about colonialism, but avoid focussing only on the

violence and suffering. Do not teach from a place of pity. Instead:


a. Talk about Indigenous resistance movements.  


b. Explore ways that Indigenous people preserved their cultures.


c. Highlight upstanders (allies who spoke out against the injustice towards

Indigenous people)


d. Talk about the strengths, values, and knowledge of Indigenous people before,

during, and after settler contact. Indigenous existence begins way before contact,

and continues after contact. 


4. When talking about a historical event, seek out resources in which Indigenous people

speak about the event themselves. 


a. This includes contemporary commentary. Many Indigenous people living today

have things to say about their history. 


5. Include current events that feature Indigenous people in them. 


a. For example, when teaching about Indigenous, Spanish, and African contact,

include ways that artists today integrate this cultural heritage into their work. 


6. Notice and speak out against stereotypes. 


a. American History is frought with Native stereotypes. Take time to learn about

these stereotypes (we address them in our work!), and counter them whenever

possible. 







Student Resources for Continuing your Learning on Indigenous People’s Day


NewsELA: Indigenous People’s Day Text Set

NewsELA provides free, leveled readings on a wide range of topics. Students can adjust the reading level and take quizzes. 


Zinn Education Project: Indigenous People’s Day Resources


Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian: Native Knowledge 360


Indian-ed.org: Since Time Immemorial Washington State Curriculum


Indian Country Today: The Case For Teaching Treaty History


Book: Rethinking Colombus: The Next 500 Years


Book: An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

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