Discoveries in a recent report from the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education include serious problems for Native students, such as bullying, hostility when reporting culturally insensitive situations, Native imagery that harms students’ identities, and anxiety over misrepresentation in classroom lessons. One of the initiative’s recommendations is to “promote cultural awareness,” specifically to “promote the accurate instruction of Native American history and culture.”
A dynamic way to incorporate accurate instruction and promote cultural awareness of contemporary Native American experiences is through film. Incorporating a film into the classroom also acts as a multimodal entrée into a deeper conversation about representations of Native peoples in today’s social media, advertising, news and entertainment.
I recommend for high school teachers* the following films that feature Native directors, actors, writers and storylines or histories:
Smoke Signals (1998, PG-13, 89 minutes) Based on a Sherman Alexie (Coeur d’Alene/Spokane) short story and directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), this now-classic Native American road film remains relevant as a film that introduces non-Native students to one story of contemporary indigenous experience with humor and poignancy. Post-film discussions might focus on family, humor, contemporary Native reservation culture, alcoholism and stereotypes.
Four Sheets to the Wind (2007, R, 81 minutes) A coming-of-age story in the wake of a father’s suicide, written and directed by Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Cree), this quietly thoughtful film challenges non-Native expectations of contemporary Native peoples. Post-film discussions might focus on contemporary Native experiences, leaving home, suicide and loss, family dynamics, alcoholism, and the active presence of Native peoples in American culture.
The Cherokee Word for Water (2013, PG, 92 minutes) This fictionalized retelling of the work that led Wilma Mankiller to become the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation challenges mainstream American stereotypes of Native women as sexualized and subjugated objects. This is the story of a smart, savvy, hard-working and compassionate Cherokee woman who helped bring her nation together in tangible and intangible ways. Post-film discussions might focus on indigenous feminism, contemporary representations of Native American women, tribal politics and water rights.
The Lesser Blessed (2012, R, 86 minutes) Originally a novel written by Tłı̨chǫ writer Richard Van Camp, this intense film tells the story of a First Nations teen named Larry trying to find his place in the world. (Note: Serious content that includes drugs, alcohol and violence.) The story is real and raw—and would likely lead to vibrant, honest and productive discussions about bullying, sexual abuse in families, grappling with the past, teenage experiences and the concept of redemption.
Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School (2008, G, 80 minutes) Most students have never heard of Indian Boarding Schools, and this documentary is an eye-opening starting point for discussions of diverse educational experiences in the United States. Students will have the opportunity to consider and compare their own experiences with those of the Native American students who often suffered the stripping of their culture, clothing, hair and language as they were forcefully assimilated into American culture via the education system. Post-film discussions might touch on racism, social justice, educational systems and Native American historical experiences.
Imprint (2007, PG-13, 84 minutes) Billed as a “supernatural thriller,” this film complicates notions of Native American women. The lead character is a Native American woman lawyer who returns to her home reservation after prosecuting a Lakota teen in a controversial murder trial, only to encounter and confront the ghosts of her past. Post-film discussions might focus on representations of indigenous women in films and in broader American culture, family dynamics, mother-daughter relationships and the complications that arise between Native cultures and the Euro-American colonialist agenda.
Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian (2009, NR, 85 minutes) This documentary dismantles everything students think they know about Native Americans in Hollywood films. Eye-opening post-film discussions might focus on racism, white privilege, misrepresentations of Native peoples in film, and the responsibility we all share to make sure students understand that the Hollywood “Indian” is not an accurate representation of living, real Native peoples and cultures.
*Because of the language and story content in some of these films, I recommend that teachers watch the films in advance to determine acceptability and appropriateness for their schools and students. Representing reality in film often means allowing the characters to speak and act in a realistic ways.
Morris teaches writing and Native American/Indigenous Rhetorics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.
The Atlantic: "High-school youth are flexing their collective muscles for equity: fighting budget cuts and out-of-school suspensions as they take on racial issues and academic offerings."
Disability Scoop: "Sixty percent of students with disabilities pursue postsecondary education within eight years of high school, according to a 2011 federal report. But, just 40 percent of these students complete college programs compared to 52 percent of students without disabilities."
The New York Times: "The Facebook groups insist that they represent the interests of white students, but also appear to be offering a counterpoint to university organizations dedicated to minority issues."
Parent Map: "It is vital we read books that are tribally specific, include Native sovereignty and depict Native peoples as diverse people of today."
School Library Journal: "From adult books for teens, books by and about Latin@s, and graphic novels, to audiobooks, and DVDs, School Library Journal's covered the best of everything in 2015."
Southern Poverty Law Center: "... [M]any transgender students across the nation attend schools with bathroom policies that don’t respect their gender identity – and the issue has become a flashpoint in the battle for transgender rights."
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org , and put "What We’re Reading This Week" in the subject line.
Two nights ago, shooters opened fire on a group of #blacklivesmatter protesters in North Minneapolis, where protesters have been gathered at the fourth precinct since the death of 24-year-old Jamar Clark. Police shot Clark in the head November 15 while responding to a domestic dispute. Details on both the Clark and the #blacklivesmatter shootings are still murky.
Three nights ago, I sat just a few miles from the fourth precinct at a Thanksgiving dinner with friends who had been part of the protests, freshly returned from days of singing, praying and holding hands around fires to keep warm. I smelled the smoke on them as they recounted the day’s events, apologetically checking their phones as videos were released, scrolling through Twitter for updates as they absorbed the warmth of our group, eating potluck turkey.
So this morning when I heard about the #blacklivesmatter shooting, I thought first of my friends. Had they been there? Were they okay? I called, I texted. An hour went by. Finally a response. They were fine.
Up until today, exploding racial violence across the country has affected me, but mostly indirectly because of my work as a social justice educator: local protests springing up, students asking for readings to help them better understand what is happening in our country. I grieved with the rest of the country after this summer’s church shooting in Charleston. I read, cried, posted, discussed in anger after Darren Wilson was not indicted last November. I cared.
But this morning, waking up to news of the shooting near loved ones I had seen only days before, it felt different. It was different. My reaction went from the hypothetical concerns of a white ally to a different sort of connection. After sitting with my friends who could have been the victims, the shootings became part of my own story; they became more real to me.
My experience follows a pattern that social scientists have observed for decades: Friendships across identity groups can promote empathy. It made me think about how to help white students who may not routinely encounter racial microaggressions, discrimination and violence—or know anyone who does—understand these incidents as relevant and critical. Dr. Brittney Cooper, Rutgers professor and weekly columnist at Salon, writes that close cross-racial friendships are difficult and rare in the United States, and that many people do not have a single close friend who is racially different from themselves. If this is the case, how can I as a white ally amplify the voices of those affected by racial violence? How can I honor their stories?
My responsibility as a white ally is to stand with and behind people of color and demand systemic change. It is also my responsibility to recognize that the moment of connection I experienced was a function of my white privilege—and to use this experience to help my students make similar connections. One way I can do this, in cases where my students share few interpersonal connections across identity groups, is to provide opportunities for them to critically engage with the stories of people whose lives and experiences are different from their own. Hearing and reflecting on these intimate stories brings the tellers and their struggles closer, makes them more real and more connected to our own stories.
University of Chicago Professor Martha Nussbaum notes in her book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform Liberal Education that students must cultivate a narrative imagination in order to connect with the lives of others they do not know. Writes Nussbaum, “This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the motions and wishes and desire that someone so placed might have.” Stories build empathy, empathy builds compassion, and compassion brings true change—change our country most desperately needs.
Czarnik-Neimeyer is the assistant director and chief of staff at St. Norbert College’s Cassandra Voss Center, which focuses on transformation through initiatives related to race, class, gender and identity.
The following resources support sharing stories across difference in the classroom:
Launched across the globe with the aim to end prejudice and discrimination, organizations can host their own Human Libraries in communities, featuring human “books” and human “readers.”
A collection of narratives used nationally in ally trainings, a great place to start is Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox’s story.
Offers viral social media postings with photos and quotes that are also good visuals for classroom use, including special recent campaign on Syrian Refugees.
Encourages archiving storytelling across generations and difference, including campaigns to collect family stories during Thanksgiving
Social justice curriculum including over 300 free readings labeled by lens and theme and aligned to the Teaching Tolerance Anti-bias Framework.
Recently, Phoenix*, a middle school student I’ve worked with for three years, said, “Miss, I hate when people are fake.”
I asked Phoenix to define what they meant by this, and they said, “You know, when they act one way when they’re with one group of people and another way when it’s just you and them.”
Phoenix was referring to a longtime friend. They described the ways in which the friend acted at the afterschool program where I work, compared to how this friend acted when they were hanging out in the neighborhood, just the two of them.
“Do you act the same way in class as you do in our program?” I asked.
Phoenix shook their head.
I asked why that was, and Phoenix said there were different expectations in class, compared to in the afterschool program. At the program—a drop-in center—youth have a fair amount of freedom to make choices about what they want to do. In class, Phoenix articulated, they were expected to learn specific things so they could pass the end-of-year tests.
I nodded. “Do you act the same around all your groups of friends?”
Phoenix shook their head again.
The complicated thing about growing up, I said to Phoenix, is that people try on different personalities. They try and figure out who they are—separate from their families, separate perhaps from friends they’ve had forever and maybe even separate from the place they grow up. Usually, I said, it’s not even that people aren’t being true to themselves—it’s that they’re trying to figure out which parts of themselves fit best.
Since being authentic with the youth I work with is so critical to building trust with them, I spoke about my own experience. I talked about how, when I was in high school, most of my school friends listened to rap, and so did I. And most of my non-school friends listened to late ’90s alt-rock, and so did I. This was the influence of two different groups, and I enjoyed both types of music (and others). Neither situation was me “posing” or being fake. It was just different aspects of me.
I pointed out to Phoenix how different aspects of me are noticeable when I facilitate a permaculture activity—the activity, in fact, we were engaged in while having this conversation—compared to when I facilitate a game for the kindergarteners and first-graders. In permaculture, the side of me that is incredibly interested in science and the environment comes out. When I facilitate games with the younger children, the side of me that’s goofier and will collapse to the floor to act like a dead worm or a frog or a duck comes out.
“Do you think either of those is me being fake?” I asked.
Phoenix shook their head. “I guess sometimes it’s just hard to tell when I can trust someone if they act one way when we’re alone and another way when we’re with the group,” they said.
I affirmed this strongly and reminded Phoenix of something we’d covered in an empowerment class two years earlier: If someone makes you feel bad about yourself or demeans you, they’re doing it to build themselves up and it’s not something you have to—or should—tolerate.
“And sometimes,” I said, “friends grow apart. That hurts a lot. And sometimes it’s forever and sometimes it’s not, and it’s nearly impossible to tell at the time which way things will eventually turn out. But if you choose to let a friendship go, it’s also important to remember that person is still human—still has faults, still has positive qualities. When we forget people’s humanity, that’s when we become our worst selves.”
*Student’s name has been changed. This student’s preferred pronoun is their/they.
Clift provides informal education to youth in Denver, Colorado, and volunteers with several organizations that work on food justice issues.
If you asked young children to draw a picture of a hero, what do you think their drawings would depict? Would their drawings suggest that heroes wear armor and carry weapons? Would their figures have fisted hands ready to fight? Such images in children’s drawings would not be a surprise, as those are the kinds of heroes they see in movies, video games and toys.
But not all heroes fight with fists and swords; this is a message worth sending to young children. Left unchallenged, the image of a hero as a warrior or fighter is likely to stay with them throughout their childhood years. A poll conducted by the Barron Prize for Young Heroes team several years ago indicated that U.S. teenagers recognized Superman and Spiderman as heroes more often than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. This same poll suggested that young people tend to confuse celebrity—even imaginary celebrity—with real-life sacrifice and leadership when it comes to identifying heroes.
Carefully selected books can be used to give young children a broader view of what constitutes a hero. My favorite in the “hero category” is Swimmy by Leo Lionni. Some teachers think of Swimmy as a science book for young children. Others use it to introduce or reinforce the ideas of teamwork and cooperation. I like to think of Swimmy as a hero book for young children.
Swimmy, the main character in the story, is a small fish who never engages in a fight, yet he becomes a real hero to other small fish in the sea. His “weapon”—or power source—is an idea that he introduces to the group. Swimmy’s idea is to have the little fish swim together in formation to present an image of being the biggest fish in the sea. This idea—along with teamwork and cooperation—is what saves the smaller fish from being eaten by the bigger fish.
The etymology of the word hero reveals meanings like “protector” and “defender,” and that’s exactly what Swimmy is for the other small fish. In trying to keep others safe, Swimmy works for a cause greater than himself; he works to help others in need. Some might wonder if young children can understand this concept, as we tend to think of them as being egocentric. But even children at self-centered stages of development can be sensitive to the needs of others. As reported by the Greater Good Science Center, even very young children have altruistic tendencies—and these tendencies can be promoted.
Use these steps to broaden young children’s understanding of Swimmy and what it means to be a hero.
- Before reading the story, have the children draw pictures of heroes. Give them an opportunity to talk about their pictures.
- Introduce the book by telling the children that you’re going to read a story about another kind of hero. Ask them to listen carefully to find out why Swimmy is a hero.
- Read the story, and then ask the children to talk about what Swimmy did that helped others.
- Also ask, “Was Swimmy brave? What did he do that showed he was brave?”
- Continue the discussion by asking the children to complete this sentence: “A hero is someone who …” If they say something like “kills the bad guys,” you can ask if Swimmy had to kill anyone to protect the little fish. Help the children understand that a hero is someone who helps others when they need it. Explain that some people in their own communities are heroes. Give some examples, such as people working for the environment or people helping those who are homeless. Invite the children to give some additional examples.
- Finally, ask the children, “Could you be a hero?” Reinforce the idea that a hero is someone who helps others who need it. Use puppets or cut-outs to narrate a story about someone telling a bully to stop hurting someone else.
- Ask the children to think of something they can do to help others in their homes, communities or school, and then have them draw pictures of themselves engaged in that activity.
To emphasize the idea that not all heroes fight, you may also wish to share some other carefully chosen books with children. Discussing what makes a hero versus a superhero can help children identify character traits associated with heroic behaviors. According to Education Oasis, some universally accepted hero-related character traits include personal courage, caring for others, perseverance, resourcefulness, a belief in oneself, optimism and being an inspiration to others. Examples of children’s books reflecting one or more of these traits include the following:
- 26 BIG Things Small Hands Do by Coleen Paratore, illustrated by Mike Reed
- A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham
- Bullies Never Win by Margery Cuyler, illustrated by Arthur Howard
- Harvesting Hope: The Story of César Chávez by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
- Mahavira: The Hero of Nonviolence by Manoj Jain, illustrated by Demi
- Nobody Knew What to Do: A Story About Bullying by Becky Ray McCain, illustrated by Todd Leonardo
- Wings by Christopher Myers
Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.