There are a plethora of reasons why teachers like to use Native American literature in their classrooms. Maybe they want to promote multiculturalism, or perhaps they want to teach their students about the origins of people and culture in North America. Whatever the reason, teachers usually try to include Native American literature in their classroom for positive reasons; they want to break stereotypes and show their students the richness of various Native American cultures and traditions. However, the use of ill-informed works of literature depicting Native Americans can do more harm than good. Often times teachers think they are doing a good thing, but they are inadvertently teaching students to stereotype Native American cultures. Some works of literature are created by non-Native Americans depicting Native Americans living lives and cultural traditions as interpreted by the author, not history. This can create a basis of incorrect knowledge and misrepresentation of Native American peoples among school-age students. So how are teachers supposed to distinguish positive, accurate, informed Native American literature from stereotypical, misrepresenting Native American literature? Though it can be difficult sometimes, there are techniques to help teachers avoid choosing the wrong works.
One of the best ways to choose Native American literature for the classroom is to note which people group is represented. If it is a specific tribe, it is probably a great choice; if it is a book about “Indians” in general, it is probably inaccurate. Another tell-tale sign is if the characters (if they are modern-day characters) are represented doing things any other person would do. Many works depicting Native Americans either stereotype them as savages, warriors, people living in perfect harmony with the land, or extinct legendary people. There are many Native Americans alive today, and they do the exact same things as any other person! They may live next door to you, go to the local high school, or compete in after-school sports. Literary works that depicts modern-day Native Americans partaking in their culture as well as the larger American culture (or whatever larger culture they may be a part of) as a whole are most likely representing these people accurately. Lastly, extended families are important to many Native American cultures; works of literature that incorporate a character’s extended family into the story is probably a genuine retelling of that character’s supposed way of life.
There are many inaccurate and even disrespectful representations of Native American literature in print today. Any teacher or reader should be wary of the typical signs of an uniformed work that may stretch or skew the way of life for a certain Native American group. However, a little bit of research goes a long way, and many resources are available to help teachers and readers discern the best representations of Native American literature to be used in the classroom or for leisure reading.