Culturally Responsive Teaching

How to Integrate Native American Perspectives in Social Studies and Science Lessons

To counteract the imbalance in information about Indigenous people, teachers can respectfully share resources that highlight important and deeply rooted knowledge.

June 20, 2024
RichLegg / iStock

Lakota Elder and educator Dorothy LeBeau said, “When we approach teaching with one worldview… we create systems of failure.” Educators seeking to create more equitable and inclusive classrooms where all learners feel represented would agree with this. Absent diverse perspectives, classrooms can become places that breed misinformation. Sadly, this is often the case when it comes to the lives and cultures of Indigenous people.    

A 2018 survey conducted by the Great Falls Tribune revealed that 40 percent of respondents were convinced that Native Americans were in fact extinct. This is a shocking revelation that shows just how underrepresented Indigenous people are, not just in school curricula, but in mainstream society as a whole. In 2020, CNN referred to the Native American voting demographic as “something else,” further contributing to Native American underrepresentation and erasure.  

Misconceptions like this are essential for teachers to correct, and they don’t require adding one more thing on your already full calendar. In fact, including Native American perspectives in an informed way alongside what you already teach will improve the quality of your social studies and science lessons. There is a growing body of resources and authorship by Native Americans to aid in sharing these perspectives with integrity and respect. 

Include Native American Perspectives in Social Studies 

Native Americans and their history are more represented than ever in social studies curricula, but their history or culture often plays a supporting role to that of Europeans and focuses only on “the bones and bloody bits.” They are presented either in archaeological terms (crossing the Bering land bridge, the abandoned cliff dwellings, etc.) or in contexts that highlight conflict and conquest. This is something that schools and public educational institutions are correcting, and in doing so, improving how history is taught

As LeBeau hinted, history isn’t a single narrative or story. Historical events always contain multiple perspectives, and those of Native Americans can be presented alongside those in texts. Resources from the National Museum of the American Indian and the book Keepunumuk enhance the story of the First Thanksgiving to provide a wider, more inclusive take on the stock story centered on the Pilgrims. 

Another example is the story of Hernando de Soto’s discovery of the Mississippi River and his conquest of the American South. Many of the tribes that de Soto encountered, such as the Chickasaw, are still present, and they have their own take on their supposed “conquest.” Visitors to the De Soto National Memorial in Florida learn from the park’s rangers the Chickasaw perspective: They weren’t conquered; they drove de Soto and his men off their land, and, unlike the Spanish, they remain. 

The inclusion of wider perspectives doesn’t dilute history—these viewpoints provide more information and a retelling that is more accurate.

History casts a long shadow. Historical events have a profound effect on people today. One opportunity to illustrate this in history education comes in the form of treaties, which are often portrayed as nonbinding agreements about land. Few people realize that these agreements are still legally binding, and as the This Land podcast explores, they remain in effect to this day. The Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 between the United States and the Oglala Sioux has come up over and over in the Supreme Court. In 1980, the Court cited the treaty when it awarded what today amounts to $1 billion in reparations to the Lakota. The Lakota’s refusal to collect the sum has fueled the modern land back movement

Include Native American Perspectives in Science

While there’s no best solution to climate change, there are knowledge systems and practices besides Western science that contain valuable insights for this conundrum. Most (if not all) Native American communities hold a foundational belief that it’s the responsibility of each generation to ensure that the world is a healthy, sustainable place for the next seven generations. This belief, combined with Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) practices, can offer viable approaches to address many of the global climate issues. Access to TEK on Native Americans’ terms can equip the coming generation with practices that will help them heal the suffering planet.

Here are some additional examples of TEK: 

Not only have these TEK practices contributed to the survival and thriving of Indigenous peoples around the world, but also they have undergone thousands of years of refinement. 

How to Appropriately Incorporate TEK in the Classroom

A common concern of many non–Native American educators is the appropriateness of teaching TEK to students, who may or may not be Indigenous themselves. Try these tips:

Go outside! TEK was developed from people being outside nearly all the time and collaborating with the natural world. Encourage students to use their five senses to observe the natural world as they engage in a TEK mindset and awareness. 

Create space for diverse perspectives. If a student says something that doesn’t  fit into the Western science paradigm, such as, “I think that people come from the stars,” find a way to validate that statement

Connect the dots between STEAM and TEK. When teaching STEAM, you can use Native Knowledge 360° and filter options to explore an array of Native American STEAM practices to provide examples of how Native Americans have been practicing science, technology, engineering, art, and math for thousands of years! 

Collaborate with Native American knowledge keepers. If you know a Native American person or organization that is offering to share any of their TEK with you, follow these commonly practiced protocols (a compilation of information gleaned from Alison’s work with tribal elders and knowledge keepers):

  • Continuously express gratitude and honor their time. Do this through gift giving (cards, letters, art, or food made by your class) or volunteering your own time. 
  • Ensure that you have explicit permission to share with others from that person or organization, and if you don’t, keep what you’ve learned to yourself. 
  • If you’ve been given permission to share knowledge gifted to you, always credit the source by verbally sharing the name(s) of those knowledge keepers.

Use the resources available. Organizations such as GRuB (the Native Plants and Food Institute) in Washington state connect non-Native American learners to Native American knowledge keepers who are willing to share their TEK with anyone who wants to respectfully learn. Try finding a similar organization in your area. Otherwise, you can always share with your students public resources and curriculum that provide TEK information. We’ve also created a resource list to help you get started. 

Including Native American perspectives and knowledge can enhance your classroom lessons and reach your students in a new way, but it’s essential that this be done respectfully. It’s important to differentiate between the open and accessible knowledge that Native Americans have invited all of us to share in, such as the resources shared here, and religious or spiritual knowledge that isn’t appropriate to share.

Be wary and critical of resources created by a non-Native American person. All resources should be thoroughly researched and vetted and prioritize information from the multitude of Native American–authored resources that are currently available.

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