Evaluating Classroom Materials for Bias against American Indians
In 1885, the national superintendent of Indian schools complained about the mainstream textbooks that alternatively represented Indians as monsters and as romantic heroes (Reyhner & Eder, 2004, p. 75). My study of school textbooks indicates that not much has changed.
The judgments issued by school curriculum now concerning American Indian peoples may be more indirect or evoked than in the past, but the judgments remain nevertheless. This guide provides checklists and guidelines that educators will find useful and that can be shared with students to help them become critical evaluators.
In addition, these resources go beyond the checklist approach and can help to develop strong literacy skills. The guide provides books that correct the historical record or that provide methods to challenge or complement textbooks. Educators at all levels should be able to find some assistance from these resources. Parents, students, and anyone interested in evaluating textbooks should gain useful information from these resources. The recommended videos in particular may be of interest to students. Use your local library or closest university library to assist in obtaining some materials that, despite their age, remain exceptionally useful.
For additional historical works, see Resource Guide: The American Indian Perspective in American History, TCJ, Vol. 14, No. 3, Spring 2003.
Bigelow, B., & Peterson, B. (2002). Rethinking Columbus: The next 500 years. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
This book includes incredible teacher resources for both elementary and secondary schools.
Coffin, C. (2006). Historical discourse: The language of time, cause, and evaluation. London: Continuum.
This book shows how the type of historical discourse in secondary school textbooks requires students to think about the past in a particular way. It presents a method of discourse analysis that grew from work designed to help teachers improve student literacy. It demonstrates how a history text makes judgments about American Indians even though written in a seemingly objective way.
Council on Interracial Books for Children (1980). Guidelines for selecting bias-free textbooks and storybooks. New York: Council on Interracial Books for Children.
This resource includes bias in storybooks, various textbooks with a special focus on history textbooks, and numerous checklists and examples. It includes “Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism,” which was reprinted in 1984 as a stand-alone brochure by the California Department of Education. This exceptional, brief resource gets at the multifaceted nature of bias in books.
Epstein, T. (2009). Interpreting national history: Race, identity, and pedagogy in classrooms and communities. New York: Routledge.
The focus of this book is on what white and black students bring to school and to the reading of the text. However, it also discusses how students, teachers, and community think about American Indians and are impacted by schooling (or how little schooling changes people’s incomplete understanding). The book shows teachers how to teach effectively about race, conflict, and white supremacy. The book discusses American Indians on approximately 30 of the 138 pages of text.
Henry, J. (1970). Textbooks and the American Indian. (R. Costo, Ed.). San Francisco: The Indian Historian Press.
This book raises 10 major concerns for textbook evaluation that include integration of Indians throughout history, accurate dates, descriptions, diversity within developing societies, Indian relations with each other, causes of conflicts, descriptions of Indians forced into slavery, genocide, Indian contributions, the special place of Indians within the federal system, and land (pp. 15-24, 148-49). Most of the book evaluates textbooks from the 1960s. Teachers may wish to have older textbooks in classes: Loewen suggest that such sources help students evaluate books critically and show different perspectives in historical account. See Simpson below for sample analysis.
Hirschfelder, A. (1999). American Indian stereotypes in the world of children: A reader and a bibliography (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
This edition includes the mascot issue, Disney’s Pocahontas, stereotyping in the military, essay on Thanksgiving, and an annotated bibliography. This hard-hitting book may convince people that the world of children is filled with improper images of American Indians.
Loewen, J. (1995). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York: Touchstone.
When he surveyed 12 American history textbooks from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, this college professor came to agree with students that history textbooks are boring. Nationalism and blind patriotism have reduced history to “facts” to be memorized. They simply tell of the natural progression of a superior race over savage and unprogressive Indians to create a country exceptional in the history of the world. This book goes a long way toward putting humanity back into history. Since the textbooks have especially slandered American Indians, it makes sense that this book uses about a third of its space on American Indians.
Loewen, J. (2009). Teaching what really happened: How to avoid the tyranny of textbooks and get students excited about doing history. New York: Teachers College Press.
This is an excellent addition for those who loved the best selling Lies My Teacher Told Me (Loewen, 1995). Three chapters are especially pertinent to American Indian issues: How and When Did People Get Here?, Why Did Europe Win?, and The $24 Myth. These chapters allow the author to explain the problems of presentism looking at the past with present-day attitudes, chronological ethnocentrism, and racial mythologies. They also show how creative teaching can breathe excitement and life back into teaching history. The chapter on historiography is arguably the most important of all. The author emphasizes the importance of teaching students about history as a field. Errors in history must be exposed and questioned for all things related to the national narrative. The author also suggests a simple content analysis procedure that can expose word associations with American Indians. The Nadir of Racism period helps explains much about textbook content between 1890 and 1940. The author suggests having college textbooks and other textbooks and sources available to de-mystify the study of history. The author emphasizes the need to tell students about contemporary American Indian people, not just Indians of the 19th century or earlier.
Mihesuah, D. (2004). American Indians: Stereotypes and realities. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press.
Each of the 25 chapters deals with a stereotype. Chapters include: all Indians are alike, Indians were conquered because they were inferior, they lacked civilization, they were warlike and treacherous, they were just another immigrant group, they had no religion, they did not respect women, they are stoic, they cannot complete school, they are alcoholics, and others. The appendices are especially useful with suggestions and course outlines.
Seale, D., & Slapin, B. (2006). A broken flute: The Native experience in books for children. Berkeley, CA: AltaMira Press.
The authors review some 600 books written over the last 100 years about American Indians. These reviews focus mostly on pre-k through 12 but also include some adult and teacher materials. This book challenges books that have won awards. A Broken Flute itself won the 2006 American Book Award and the 2006 Skipping Stones Honor Award.
Slapin, B., Seale, D., & Gonzalez, R. (1992). How to tell the difference: A checklist for evaluating children’s books for anti-Indian bias. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
This book is 30 pages of direct questions, with illustrations, from actual books. The book includes picture books, stereotypes, distortions of history, life styles, standards of success, roles of elders, harm to children, and author/illustrator background.
Zinn, H. (2007). A young people’s history of the United States. New York: Seven Stories Press.
This two-volume set is an adaptation of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Recommended chapters include Columbus and the Indians, As Long as the Grass Grows or Water Runs, and Surprises. The easy-to-use index will also lead to text on Indians and the Declaration of Independence, Indians and the American Revolution, Columbus Quincentennial, and Indians in history books. It is very readable without being pandering or boring.
Simpson, M. (2006, April). Teach your children well: A critical examination of the genuine history of late 19th century school textbooks.
Available on the Conference Literature page of the Office of Indian Education. Retrieved October 27, 2009, from:
The paper applies the criteria from the Henry resource above. Also, it draws upon a biocritique of textbook authors, the nature of textbooks as methods of control, and textbooks as cultural artifacts that determine not only what knowledge is worth knowing but whose.
American Holocaust: When It’s All Over, I’ll Still Be An Indian
This video connects Hitler’s Final Solution of Jews and other undesirables with U.S. American Indian policy. Director, Joanelle Romero
American Indians in Children’s Literature: Critical Perspectives of Indigenous Peoples in Children’s Books, the School Curriculum, Popular Culture, and Society-at-Large.
This premier website compiled by Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) provides plenty of Native perspectives on everything from children’s books to movies and museums. Check out the link to recommended children’s and young adult books. Books are listed by level and genre. This website also includes articles about children’s literature so you can see what people are saying about particular books. On the right side, you will find links to books discussed on the site. You will also find links to Guidelines for Evaluating Websites, resources for research projects, “how to” guides, lesson plans, award winners, bibliographies, links to professional journals, various association statements about mascots, links to Native writer websites, audio and video interviews, and much more. Check this site out, and allow yourself time to browse.
The Native American Studies link offers description and ordering information for almost 30 educational videos, including the universally acclaimed The Return of Navajo Boy. Other videos cover California tribes, religious freedom, archeology and the law, control of ancestral remains, and stories from various tribes.
Evaluating American Indian Materials and Resources for the Classroom: Textbooks, Literature, DVD’s, Videos, and Websites.
The Montana Office of Public Instruction offers this online and downloadable 2009 guidebook. It lists 13 areas for special consideration when selecting materials. To some extent, they demonstrate that classroom materials have not advanced far since the 1970 guidelines discussed above (Henry). Thus, the criteria should be shared widely and taken seriously. These guidelines include nine criteria for evaluating illustrations and important questions to use when evaluating websites. The website also provides an evaluation form. Also check out the Montana Indian Education for All videos: www.opi.mt.gov/indianed2/videos.html
A related site provides excellent online videos dealing with various issues (including Thanksgiving) and learning activities and guides, primarily related to Montana tribes. See www.montanatribes.org/digital_archives/matrix.php?page=into
A visit to this website should include the Books to Avoid section, which contains some atrocious popular children’s books. For good books, DVD’s, audio cassettes, and posters, click on the catalog section. Teaching guides and curricula are available at many academic levels and in many subjects. Several of the resources listed above in this guide are available here including Broken Flute and How to Tell the Difference. Oyate offers weeklong workshops on children’s books about Indians.
The Canary Effect: Kill the Indian, Save the Man (63 minutes)
This very effective film deals with the various forms of American Indian genocide and its lingering effects. Most people in the United States are unaware of many subjects covered in the film, including scalp bounties, forced sterilization, and boarding schools. Executive producers: Dave Stewart and John Shanks. Directors: Robin Davey and Yellow Thunder Woman.
10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America: Massacre at Mystic
Online curriculum at:
This video documentary of events of May 26, 1637, includes voices from both sides of the Puritan and Pequot conflict. The video shows the contemporary Pequot and how they reconstituted their community. It shows how the pattern was established for future European and American Indian relations. Shown on the History Channel, the series is comprised of 10 films, each created by a different documentary filmmaker.
Unlearning “Indian” Stereotypes (12 minutes)
Rethinking Schools: http://www.rethinkingschools.org/publication/uis-dvd/
American Indian children narrate this short video. Originally produced by the Council on Interracial Books for Children in 1977, it was enhanced by Rethinking Schools in 2008.
Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?
California Newsreel http://www.unnaturalcauses.org/ (Click on Episode 4)
The Bad Sugar episode deals with the connection between diabetes, oppression, and empowerment in two Native communities in the Southwest. It shows both the lingering effects of colonialism and the bad side of government “help” while also showing active Native young people using the old to create a future. Executive producer: Larry Adelman.
This film shows the personal journey of Hidatsa/Mandan filmmaker J. Carlos Peinado back home to document the devastating impact of massive dam projects on self-sufficient Native communities. Producers/ directors/ writers/ editors: J. Carlos Peinado and Daphne D. Ross.
When Your Hands Are Tied (56 minutes)
This DVD shows young American Indians finding ways to express themselves and maintain ties to their Native roots. You will see rappers, punk rockers, dancers, and skateboard artists and performers. One of my students commented, “For one day, I felt good to be an Indian.”
Boccella Productions. Produced by Mia Boccella Hartle and Marley Shebala. (See review in TCJ, Vol. 19, No. 2.)
A frequent book reviewer for Tribal College Journal, Michael W. Simpson J.D., M.Ed. is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. He has taught in a variety of school contexts, including inner city Native-serving charter schools and reservation public schools. He conducts workshops for teachers so they can help students recognize history texts that judge American Indians despite seemingly objective language. He may be contacted at email@example.com.