Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms

Article excerpt

The 2005 International Focus issue of Childhood Education focused on the education of aboriginal and indigenous children. Guest Editor Jyotsna Pattnaik located too many excellent articles on that important topic to include in one issue. Therefore, she will continue to provide these theme-related articles, here and in future issues.

Seven and Josh were busy working in the art area of the classroom. They had assembled paper, scissors, markers, tape, and glue. As I came over to watch them work on their elaborate project, Josh looked up and informed me that he was making guns. Indeed, he had already assembled two realistic-looking holsters. I decided to probe a bit, asking him why he was making guns.

"I'm a cowboy," he told me. "That's why I'm making guns."

"Why does a cowboy need guns?" I asked him.

Josh thought for a long time. Then he shrugged and said, "I don't know."

His friend Steven, though, seated across the table, knew. Right away he spoke up and said, "A cowboy needs guns so he can kill Indians."

"Why would a cowboy want to do that?" I asked.

"Because Indians are bad," Steven confidently informed me. "Indians kill people. They'll scalp you." (Jones & Moomaw, 2002, pp. 2-3)

This interaction occurred in my preschool classroom at the Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center, University of Cincinnati, several years ago. It startled me into an awareness of the fears, stereotypes, misconceptions, and biases that young children continue to harbor about American Indian peoples, a half century after my own generation, reared on a steady diet of "cowboy and Indian" television and play, espoused the same views. Where do these wildly inaccurate ideas come from? Are they widespread, or were Steven and Josh unusual?


Research conducted by the League of Women Voters in New Brighton, Minnesota, discovered that over three-fourths of the kindergarten children in the study gave stereotypical answers to questions regarding Native Americans (Hirschfelder, Molin, & Wakim, 1999, pp. 3-8). While the authors of the study were surprised by the large number of kindergarten children who described American Indians as violent and mean, this situation does not surprise many Native people. Author and lecturer Guy W. Jones, a Hunkpapa Lakota from the Standing Rock reservation, recounts how a young girl once approached him and asked for reassurance that he wouldn't scalp her (Jones & Moomaw, 2002, p. 14). When he brought a group of Native dancers to perform at an elementary school assembly, the children became hysterical at the sight of the dancers in traditional regalia and face paint (Jones & Moomaw, 2002, p. 22). So Steven and Josh are not unusual in their fears about Native American people; rather, their emotions typify the images and views of a majority of young children.

Where do these prejudices and blatant misconceptions come from? After all, it is the first decade of the 21st century, not 1950. We do not need to look far to understand why children continue to misconstrue the cultures of Native peoples. They are surrounded by stereotypes in sports and the media, from the grinning "red Sambo" mascot of the Cleveland Indians to the tomahawk-chopping fans of the Atlanta Braves. Similar mascots and fan responses are common at colleges and high schools, so children grow up seeing Indians portrayed as violent. In addition, thanks to cable television, children can now view the entire genre of cowboy and Indian movies and cartoons from the past 50 years. While one can argue that educators cannot control influences from the larger society, it is a sad fact that many of the misconceptions children learn about Native American people and cultures come from the school environment itself. The following section will describe school practices that contribute to the perpetuation of misinformation.

School Practices That Contribute to Misinformation About Native Americans

School practices that contribute to misinformation include: 1) omission of Native American materials from the daily curriculum, 2) inaccurate portrayals or information in the curriculum, 3) stereotyping of Native peoples in schools, and 4) cultural insensitivity. …