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How to Honor Indigenous Peoples with Your Kids, Today and Every Day

Teaching children about Indigenous heroes, artists, writers and musicians and to make connections to the land they live on and present-day Native nations should happen year-round. Here's how to get started.
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As educators and caregivers, it’s imperative that we have honest and brave conversations with the children in our lives. This includes disrupting false narratives when we hear them being perpetuated in our homes and schools. The myth that Columbus was a hero is not only harmful, it’s also unfair to children when grown-ups they trust withhold the truth.

Three Native Amerian Navajo sisters in traditional clothing pose in Monument Valley, Arizona.
Three Native Amerian Navajo sisters in traditional clothing pose in Monument Valley, Arizona.

In an attempt to honor and recognize Indigenous people as the first inhabitants of the United States, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is being celebrated in many cities throughout the country. While advocating for the observation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a step forward, the inaccurate and whitewashed history that is taught in most schools contributes to the erasure of over 500 Native nations. We can do better by centering Indigenous voices and stories all year, even with our littlest learners.

This Indigenous Peoples’ Day, commit to teaching children to make deep connections to the land and present-day Native nations, along with amplifying and learning about Indigenous heroes, artists, writers and musicians all year long. Here are some ideas to get started:

Disrupt the “People of the Past” Narrative

Debbie Reese, a Nambé Pueblo scholar and educator said, “Choose books that are tribally specific (that name a specific tribal nation and accurately present that nation), written by Native writers, set in the present day, and relevant all year round, keeping Native peoples visible throughout the school year.” Involve young learners in researching whose land you are on. This small but critical action will support children in making connections to the land and the original inhabitants and stewards of the places they call home.

Explore Whose Land: Territories by Land. This online resource provides information about Native nations throughout the United States and access to many of the Native nations’ websites. The websites provide a platform to research upcoming events and ways you can support local Indigenous communities. As you research over time, ask children prompting questions such as:

  • "Who were the first people who lived here? "
  • "Do they still live here?"
  • "If [insert specific tribal nation] do not live here, who forcibly removed them?"
  • "Where do [insert specific tribal nation] live now?" "What are they doing?"
  • "Do [insert specific tribal nation] still speak their language?" "If not, what does that mean?" 

Seek out Indigenous Created Resources

Children have a good sense of what is fair and what is not. Extend their learning about white settler colonialism by watching “Grandpa's Drum” from “Molly of Denali.” “Molly of Denali” was created by Alaska Native writers and advisers. It’s also one of the first children’s television programs to have a Native American lead. Here are some tips for making the most of this resource:

  • Define shared language. As you watch, talk about words like American Indian, Native American and Alaska Native. Explain that most Indigenous people prefer to be called by their specific tribal group. Remind your child that if they aren’t sure, the best thing to do is ask! Encourage your child to practice saying the Athabascan words you hear. Relate this to the importance of being able to speak one’s home language and honoring one’s identity by saying given names accurately.
  • Talk about ideas and feelings. Use the “Grandpa’s Drum” Viewing Guide to have courageous conversations with children. Some ideas to empower children to think deeply include:
    • "How do you think Grandpa Nat felt when he was sent away to boarding school as a child? "
    • "Why did he give away his drum?"
    • "Why do you think Shyahtsoo’s doll was taken away?" What was it replaced with?"
    • "What kind of doll is Shyahtsoo’s granddaughter shown playing with today?" "What do you think that means?"

Have Conversations About Community and Heritage

Cartoon of a little boy and girl in traditional clothing. The boy is playing a drum while the girl smiles.
"Molly of Denali" was created by Alaska Native writers and advisers and is one of the first children’s television programs to have a Native American lead. | PBS KIDS

Healthy identity development is critical to fostering resiliency, self-love and emotional growth. Children can recognize and celebrate their own cultures and cultural identities while also respecting and honoring the experiences of others.

  • Community: Discuss what a community looks, sounds and feels like. Create a piece of artwork, poem, sculpture or song that illustrates this concept. Ask children to reflect on questions, such as:
    • "What does community mean?"
    • "In what ways do we show we care about each other?"
    • "Why is it important that everyone has a voice in our community?"
    • "What are our community values?" "Why?"

  • Heritage: Explain heritage to children in kid-friendly language. For example, heritage is the family history and cultural practices given to us by our ancestors. Elaborate that our ancestors are people in our family who lived before us. Reinforce that many people have more than one heritage. Involve children in thinking about the languages, music and traditions that are part of their heritage. Support children in developing an appreciation for the cultures of others by watching Emma Stevens sing “Blackbird” in Mi'kmaq, or reading “Fry Bread: A Native American Family Tradition” written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, which beautifully illustrates Maillard’s multiracial heritage as a member of the Mekusukey band of the Seminole Nation and as a Black American.

Read Indigenous Created Kid-Lit

Representation matters. Books must provide windows for children to learn about experiences different from their own, while also validating their own lived experiences by providing mirrors into their multiple identities. There are brilliant Indigenous children’s authors writing so much goodness right now. Here are a few must reads:

Written by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Frané Lessac Otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is a word that Cherokee people use to express gratitude. This beautiful book was written by Traci Sorell, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and supports children in learning about Cherokee celebrations and experiences.

Written by Thomas King & William Kent Monkman Young children experience the myths that surround Columbus’ voyages and learn how critical it is to ask, “Who is validated in this story?” and “Whose perspective is missing?” Thomas King is of Cherokee and Greek descent and William Kent Monkman is a Cree artist.

Written by Wab Kinew and illustrated by Joe MorseChildren of all ages love this book where the text transforms into a lyrical rap that introduces children to historic and modern-day Indigenous heroes. Kinew is a member of the Midewin.

Extend your learning by checking out these resources:

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