Studying Native People: Considering Stereotypes

The home-school cooperative that I run (www.s-h-i-n-e.org) uses what is called “Blended Learning.” How is that for a new term? Dr. Nellie Deutsch’s November 9 post on the WizIQ blog defined Blended Learning as “the combination of online learning and face-to-face meetings.”

Right now, it is working for my students and for me. We are, as you may know, creating our own model utopia and studying different cultures to inform the model world that we want to create. We are studying history and sociology as part of this investigation. We also live in Western Massachusetts, where there were once many thriving indigenous communities. Studying a Native community is an obvious course of study.

However, studying the Native Peoples of the US is fraught with complications. Scholars have trouble even agreeing on a title for the group, as there were many distinct groups. I do not like the term Native American, as they were not native to “America”. “America” was not even a word during this era. I would be annoyed if a person named June took over my land, and then called me a Native Junian. I do not think that I would want to have anything to do with the word, nor the person. Most conscientious people try to refer to the actual name of the tribe. For example, here in Western MA, there were many Pocumtuc people. When it is not possible or practical to refer to a specific group, I refer to them as Native People or First People. This seems like a responsible way to handle the situation.

Studying Native People is complicated

The situation is complicated. I do not want the kids to be so afraid of offending someone that they are not able to talk nor learn. Nor do I want them to fall into the standard “positive” stereotypes, such as “The natives were close to nature.” Yes, they were (and perhaps are) closer to nature than my students are, but that is not the point. I want them to understand these two points:

-Discussing Native People is Complicated: Atrocities happened, we can not understand them all, nor will we ever know of them all. There are no pat answers, but not thinking about what happened nor learning from the people it happened (and is happening) to is a greater crime than any that we can commit when we thoughtfully try to consider and learn from the lives of others.

-Native People Were and Are People: They did and do some wonderful things as well as some terrible things. They had lots of motives to live the way that they did and do the things that they do, just like all people.

How do we sensitively convey the complications to students?

I scheduled a trip to a local museum that has an extensive collection of information about Native populations that inhabited this area. Before we went to the museum, though, I insisted that the students developed an awareness, through conversation and reading, of what some of the stereotypes were and are. So, for Monday’s on-line class, I introduced the kids to the ideas of different “kinds” of stereotypes. We talked about the Princess (gentle, kind to animals, close to the earth), The Noble Savage (proud, strong, acting in self-defense), and the Savage Menace (brutal, ugly, and violent). We touched on how these particular styles of stereotypes are popular the world over. When one group wants to simplify and dehumanize another group, they often resort to these images. There will be another time in the year when we can see how a different group is given the same treatment. The ideas will really take hold in their brains, then.

Then, on Tuesday, we met in person. I had several samples of images of the various kinds of stereotypes, and I asked the kids to work in small groups to categorize them. It might seem ironic to ask kids to categorize different stereotypes, but my goal was for them to look critically and think about the various images, and it worked. The kids were all engaged, discussing and considering the images and the idea. They were ready to visit the museum and thoughtfully consider the lives of others, with some understanding of the issues at hand.

Time in the WizIQ Virtual Classroom can support and enhance time in the brick and mortar classroom to help our students become more thoughtful and responsible human beings.

 


I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at www.onlineclassesforgroovykids.org.

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