Fluff and Feathers:
Treatment of American Indians in the Literature and the Classroom

Cornel Pewewardy

From Equity & Excellence in Education, April 1998.

There is a critical need for culturally responsive teachers for American Indian children in American schools today. According to Vavrus (1997), public school educators as a group have a colonial mind set. They view indigenous peoples and other minorities from a falsely superior "we" versus "they" perspective. In the midst of this cultural mismatch, the public school system is failing American Indian learners. Educational statistics indicate under achievement, absenteeism, overage students, and low socioeconomic status. More subjective evaluations add negative educational goals and low levels of aspiration. There are volumes of research and evidence that prove the need for change, but those of us who have been teaching American Indian children for most of our professional lives already know the status of Indian education today and are committed to improving the condition for future generations.

Throughout my professional life, I have witnessed teacher after teacher falling into the paradox of teaching American Indian children. I see how both teachers and children are influenced by images invented by Hollywood, which still have a significant impact on children today. They absorb the racist images society feeds them through television, movies, and now through the internet. This article challenges the complacency of white culture in its representation of its troubled relationship with American Indians. Much of the literature on Indian education is devoted to enumerating the problems—this article is dedicated to recognizing the problems (fluff) and looking for solutions (feathers). To understand the current imagery projected on American Indians, it is essential to understand the history of its making, and these topics create a powerful, interconnected tapestry of image creation over the last 150 years.

First, there are no easy answers, no short cuts, and no simple changes that would give American Indians an equal opportunity for the educational success that others achieve. Tribes are different and each individual student is different. There are many culturally responsive teachers who have been innovative and understanding enough to succeed in teaching American Indian learners. Throughout this article are suggestions based on my 20 years of practitioner experience, action research, and hundreds of workshops on effective teaching practices for American Indian learners—ideas that have proven effective for individual teachers. It is up to each teacher to select and adapt from them to meet the needs of the individual students.

Almeida (1996) suggests there are three obstacles to providing better instruction for and about American Indians. They are (1) lack of training provided by teacher training programs, (2) ongoing racist portrayals of Native Americans in the larger society, and (3) difficulties in locating sources of trustworthy materials. Concerning those materials, Kuipers (1991) contends that teachers cannot isolate the literature on the value system of the American Indian from the literature on the treatment of the American Indian. Because the treatment of the subject matter is extremely important, books of reference on the values of American Indians should be carefully checked for accuracy, authenticity, and objectivity.

This article addresses common issues and errors made by teachers of American Indian students or by other teachers about American Indians' culture, history, and values.

Developing Cultural Responsibility

Culturally responsive teachers are those who think multicultural rather than monocultural in content; they communicate in discursive and nondiscursive methods and languages; they utilize methodologies that are congruent with cultural learning styles; and they understand that becoming a multicultural teacher is a developmental process without a known point of completion or point of arrival.

Culturally responsive pedagogy involves providing the best possible education for children that preserves their own cultural heritage and prepares them for meaningful relationships with other people, and for living productive lives in the present society without sacrificing their own cultural perspective (Pewewardy, 1994).

Children have their own learning styles. Some are auditory learners and other visual. Some find kinesthetic experience most effective. Some of these differences are differences in innate ability. Others are caused by a learning disability in one area. Consider carefully the learning styles of each student. Presenting new learning through as many different modes as possible gives Indian students a fair chance.

Speaking Versus Communication

Speaking does not necessarily assure success in communicating the intended messages, nor does communication always necessitate speaking. Much of what we communicate is nonverbal. What we hear, how we talk, how we walk, the courses we take, the person we marry—all communicate something, whether the intention is there or not, because communication is any transference of meaning. Speaking is merely the utterance of words, but communication occurs whenever meaning is attributed to an object, event, situation, or behavior, or to the residue of that behavior. In other words, we take meaning we already have and attach it to the events we observe in the environment.

American Indian children regulate conversational exchanges differently from Anglo-American children. Many American Indian communication systems have more cues, particularly nonverbal ones, that designate speakers, listeners, and the next speaker.

Communication between teacher and student is essential to effective teaching. With many Indian students, this will be a great challenge. Many Indian students come from a culture that doesn't challenge authority; therefore, expressing an opinion may be an issue. Others have already been in several classrooms in which their ideas were not respected or used, but were criticized by the teacher or ridiculed by other children. Eventually, if you listen well enough, students will share their feelings with you. Then you will know that you have developed real communication.

Typical classroom discussion style consists of a cyclical rotation of turns at talking. Just as tribal cultures differ in the structure of their tribal language, they also differ in the structure of oral discourse. When oral interaction patterns differ from culture-of-teacher to tribal culture-of-child, serious misunderstandings can occur as the two participants try to play out different patterns and assign different social meanings to the same utterance or gesture.

There are many occasions when American Indian children are expected to observe adults silently as adults carry out a task or carry on a conversation. Also, many Indian children often learn by cooperation with an older relative in carrying out a task l I've observed that many children succeed by adhering to the following steps: observation, supervised participation, and private self testing. Furthermore, Indian children often feel more comfortable participating in class after they have had time to consider their responses or practice their skills. They also are apt to delay answering questions (Sanders, 1987).

Classroom Management Implications

Fuller (1996) contends that American Indian children tend to be more comfortable in classrooms that are cooperative in nature and that use small group activities as instructional techniques. Thus, while a child might feel uncomfortable being singled out for praise, this child will feel pride when his or her group receives recognition. Because the group is so important, there is pain in being reprimanded in front of peers. In accord with the cooperative preference of this group, the whole class should be involved in identifying desirable class behaviors and then helped to formulate rules to accomplish those goals. The culture enjoyed by many Indian children is generally congruent with such a noninterventionist model because of its overriding concern for the benefit of the group.

The public schools which most Indian children attend, as institutions, represent the values and behaviors of the white middle class and are designed for children from that community. And, they generally work well for white, middle-class children because home-school relationships are based on this cultural tradition. As with any tradition, it works because those involved understand and are comfortable with it.

American Indian parents have a short tenure as invited partners in the educational system. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and parochial boarding schools were the primary educational institutions for American Indian children until well into the twentieth century. Because the historical goal of those institutions was to "civilize the savage" (cultural genocide), parents (as representatives of the "undesirable" culture) were actively discouraged from participating in their children's educational experiences. Even though most contemporary American Indian children live with their parents and attend schools in their communities, and even though the goals of the schools have changed dramatically, there is not a historical tradition of home school relations (Little Bear, 1986).

"Real" Indians

Expecting Native Americans to look like the Hollywood movie Indians is a huge mistake. Don't expect Indians to look alike, anymore than Europeans look alike or any other ethnic group. There is no such thing as a real lndian, only Hollywood-created images of past tense Indians. "Real Indians" are a figment of the monocultural American psyche. The term comes from a European perspective. Therefore, framing a response to "Are you a real Indian?" requires me to respond by saying, "There are no real Indians in America, only indigenous peoples increasingly forming into a hybrid culture trying to hold on to what little culture, language and sacred knowledge are left." The only real Indians in America are those Indians that originated from the country of India.

According to Bird (1996), nineteenth-century tourists to the American west wanted to see traditional clothing and quiet nobility, and that has not really changed. Now that no "real" (i.e., frozen in history) Indians remain to be viewed, mass culture has replaced them with movies, television, and romances, which are almost invariably set in the past. The notion of the only "real" Indians being historical ones is still pervasive today.

"What percentage of Indian are you?" Many teachers don't see how racist it is to ask this question. It's an innocuous enough question, posed with the most virtuous of intentions. I ask my students would you ask this same question of people from a different ethnic group? How much Asian/Hispanic/Black/European blood do you have? So why are Indians so special? "Full-blood," "half-breed," "quarter-blood"—any inference that a person's race depends on blood is racist. Indigenous people are frequently singled out for this form of bigotry and are denied rights on that.- basis.

Many students have been overheard saying to Indian students, "you don't look Indian." Again, the idea that Indians are supposed to have a certain look is stereotyping. This is another Hollywood- invented image. There are millions of students in school who have some Indian ancestors.

Inaccuracies That Hurt or Insult

In American Indian educational literature much bias results in the perpetuation of stereotypical myths. The negative stereotypes fostered by textbooks are sustained and elaborated by communications media, the primary culprits being television programs, movies, and novels.

Stereotypes sell. To this day, consumers recognize the stylized Indian chief on cans of Calumet Baking Powder and the kneeling Indian maiden on packages of Land O' Lakes butter. The athletic fortunes of the Braves, Indians, Chiefs, Redskins, and Black Hawks are followed by professional sports fans across the country (Steele, 1996). Teachers should challenge and examine cultural stereotypes. Discuss with children the television programs and movies depicting Indians as romantic images of the frontier past.

Many teachers are accustomed to teach "A" is for Apple and "I" is for Indian. If you want children to grow up respecting American Indian people, do not equate Indians with things. Actually, the culturally responsive term is "I" is for Indigenous.

Using the past tense in teaching lessons about Indians is an error; for example, studying, "how the Indians lived." Saying "lived" suggests that there are no more Indians living today. Indian people are very much a part of today, and each tribe has a name and separate culture.


Xenophobic-coded language includes the English language created by monoculturalists or triumphalists to combat multicultural education—words like "politically correct" or "politically incorrect" and so forth. Another means by which language shapes our perspectives has been found in many history books, such as Columbus "discovered" America; Indians were "moved" to Oklahoma; slaves were "brought" to America; the continental railroad was built, conveniently omitting information about the Chinese laborers who built most of it or the oppression they suffered.

Ethnocentric perspective is the inability to separate ourselves from our own cultural backgrounds and biases to understand the behaviors of others. It's the belief that members of one's group are superior to the members of other groups. It shows up, for example, when someone makes references to: "first schools" in America; "first town" in the state; "first church" in town; "New World" versus "Old World" (who is it new to?); "uncivilized tribes," "civilized tribes," "primitive," "greatest nation in the world" (what about tribal nations?), and so forth.

Refrain from using "uncivilized" when referring to any tribal culture. Use the words "unique" or "different" instead. Try not to suggest that cultural groups are superior or inferior.

Lumping all Indians together is a mistake. Tribes of one nation are sovereign nations and are as different from another tribe as Italians are from Swedes. The word "Indian" is a misnomer. "Indian" came from Christopher Columbus' mistaken belief that he actually reached the East Indies. As erroneous as this term is, it is the most commonly used name for the Indigenous peoples of North America. The best way to refer to Indigenous peoples is by their tribal names. For example, if you mean, "Comanches lived this way a long time ago," then say so.

Often teachers are unaware of the impact of saying to their class, "all right children, let's all sit Indian style in a circle." This directive suggests that there is a common style or way in which all Indians sit down on the ground and in a circle. This is yet another example of a Hollywood-invented stereotype Nobody would dare think of saying the same thing to other ethnic groups: "sit down Black style," "sit down Mexican style," "sit down Asian style," and so forth. The way to address this exercise is to say, "sit down in a circle with your legs crossed in front of you."

Avoid allowing children to imitate indigenous people by saying "how" or "ugh." These words are often times used as if they were common phrases in conversation among indigenous peoples. Ask yourself, did all Indians really hold up their hand and ask "How?" How what? Is not "how" also an English word? Asking, "how?" or grunting "ugh" are insulting, nonsensical, verbal symbols of Indianness. So is yelling "Geromino" when jumping off a driving board (Mihesuah, 1996). What about the terminology suggested when someone says or refers to "Montezuma's Revenge"?

Other Proverbial Stereotypes

Little has changed for many school children when it comes to prevailing and proverbial stereotypes of Indian people. According to Slapin and Seale (1992), some children who go back on their promises are called "Indian givers." "Ten Little Indians" is still a popular counting song. Non-Indian children still dress as "Indians" for Halloween. Around Thanksgiving, teachers all over the United States routinely trim their bulletin boards with befeathered headdresses and "Indian" costumes. Books about American Indians are still written, published, and promoted by non-Indians.

In visual representation look for tokenism—European versions of physiology as norms; emphasis of stereotypical but basically irrelevant emblems or symbols; and inaccuracies and lack of cultural differentiation.

Refrain from teaching that Columbus was a hero without examining his relations with indigenous peoples. The same can be said about George Armstrong Custer, Andrew Jackson, George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Teddy Roosevelt, and others who believed Indians to be inferior to Europeans (Mihesuah, 1996).

Also, heroines like Sacajawea, Pocahontas, and other indigenous women in U.S. history were elevated to royalty status like princesses and queens. To suggest that indigenous females were princess and queens is contrary to many tribal beliefs. It's a European concept. Moreover, many tribes are a patriarchy as well as an matriarchy.

As Pauline Turner Strong observes, "Disney has created a marketable New Age Pocahontas to embody our millennial dreams for wholeness and harmony, while banishing our nightmares of savagery without and emptiness within" (Bird, 1996, p. 3).

Dressing up your children to demonstrate, reenact, and/or play cowboys and Indians is playing genocide. It's a reminder of the cultural genocide of the indigenous people of North America. This is as dishonest as playing "happy mammy and plantation owner s wife." After all, Pilgrims, Puritans, and other colonists thought that Indians were heathens and savages, and according to some, the devil's disciples. Within 50 years of the "Thanksgiving Feast," thousands of Indians were dead at the hands of colonists and disease. Thanksgiving indeed. In fact, many indigenous people recognize Thanksgiving as a "Day of Mourning" (Mihesuah, 1996).

A common mistake of teachers to is have children make headdresses to wear or cut out headbands from construction paper to be placed on their childrens' heads in so-called Hollywood "Indian style." This again is a stereotype as not all indigenous people wore headdresses. Most headdresses suggested war bonnets, sometimes full- length to represent valor and the honorable accomplishments of a plains warrior. Many headdresses are from tribes other than the typical plains tribes.

The style, materials, and significance of headdresses varied from tribe to tribe and warrior to warrior depending on the warrior status among the people. Not every tribal member wore a feather or headdress. Indigenous men certainly did not wear headdresses to play around in, therefore, nor should children.

Be very cautious when teaching children about song and dance. Singing or dancing "Indian style" and "having a pow-wow" to many children today, is-"cool." On the other hand, many traditional people do not see their tribal cultures as cool. It is traditional and should be treated with respect and honor.

Children should not dance Hollywood Indian-style, nor should children beat on a drum and try to sing traditional songs. Social and traditional songs and dances have religious meaning for many tribes, and any attempt at imitation is ridicule. The ability to beat on the drum and sing song is earned through tribal rites of passages.

The Declaration of Independence refers to indigenous people as "merciless savages." George Washington bought and sold Indian lands without tribes' permission, fought and killed Indians without mercy, and owned almost 500 African American slaves. In his book, The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt wrote that Indians are "filthy," "lecherous," and "faithless," in addition to living lives that "were but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid and ferocious than that of the wild beasts with whom they held joint ownership" (Mihesuah, 1996).

Teach students the other side of the story—how the West was lost. If possible, chronicle each tribal group and their history and relationship with the U.S. government from their beginning to the present.

Teachers' understanding of the social world is based on their own life experiences. Sleeter wrote "that what White people know about the social world is generally correct, but only for understanding White people" (1992 p. 211). She referred to the perspective of most white teachers about race as "dysconscious racism," a term she borrowed from Joyce King. King wrote that "Dysconscious racism is a form of racism that tacitly accepts dominant white norms and privileges. It is not the absence of consciousness (that is, unconsciousness) but an impaired consciousness or distorted way of thinking about race as compared to, for example, critical consciousness" (1991, p. 135).

A problem arises when persons, symbols, or behaviors project a negative or stereotypical image. Sports mascots, logos, and related paraphernalia too often reflect stereotypes rather than authenticity. Various mascot sponsors have invented Indian characters that have nothing to do with the reality of indigenous peoples' lives, past or present. These mascots and logos, and the images that they convey, homogenize hundreds of indigenous cultures, robbing them of their distinctive identities and distorting their roles in U.S. history.

My response has always been that Indian mascots, logos, nicknames, and gestures offend tens of thousands of American Indians because these invented media images prevent millions from understanding an authentic human experience. These sporting acts are examples of cultural violence that have contributed toward negative, distorted images of indigenous peoples (Pewewardy, 1991). The bottom line is whether the indigenous people feel respect and/or honor of being a mascot or logo for sports teams.

Silent Genocide

Today, I see silent genocide in the way indigenous people are integrated and reinvented by non- Indians. Appropriation of indigenous ceremonies, religions, and identities has been the most threatening practice. Examples could be using Indians as mascots and logos in sports culture; new age shamanism; and eugenics research. This blatant disrespect for the rights and religious practices of indigenous peoples may prove to be one of the most destructive forces of oppression yet, as American racism steals precious mental and physical treasures of the soul. Genocide is contagious. Unless interrupted by healing grace, the atrocities of the past become ghosts within the cultural memory of a people crying out for justice.

Moving Toward Mutual Respect—From "Fluff" to "Feathers"

The biggest difference between American Indians and other minorities in the United States is that this country has always been the former s tribal home. Although they were dispossessed of most of their land, American Indians retain reservations and own the land as sovereign nations within the United States. They have retained the right to be labeled the "authentic" native people of this continent. However, many history books teach children that Indians crossed over the Bering Strait. Consequently, this interpretation of where Indians originated is contrary to the traditional belief system of most indigenous people of North America. Creation stories tell Indian children where and how they originated in their tribal lands. Indeed, none of our sacred bundles, which are memories of our people, tell us that we crossed the Bering Strait as anthropologists suggest (Yellow Bird, 1995).

Authenticity as an evaluation criterion is best illustrated through the following inquires.

The pride and satisfaction derived from in-group membership are types of ethnocentrism, the notion that one's in-group is more superior to other groups. Teaching from the Eurocentric perspective that a few brave Europeans defeated millions of Indians is highly inaccurate. Mostly diseases brought to this continent from Europe referred to as genocide defeated Indians. Stannard (1992) contends that close to 100,000,000 Indigenous peoples were exterminated in the American holocaust.2

The effect of this holocaust on North American Indians, like that of the Jews, was millions of deaths. In fact, the holocaust of the North American tribes was, in a way, even more destructive than that of the Jews, since many American Indian tribes became extinct (Thornton, 1987). The white man's superior technology, hunger for land, and ethnocentrism seemingly knew no bounds. The white threat to Indians came in many forms: smallpox, missionaries, Conestoga wagons, barbed wire, six gun revolvers, and smoking locomotives. The final threat came in the form of schools; early American Indian education was truly an education for extinction (Adams, 1995).

Interpretations and Perceptions of American Indian Youth

Mechling (1996) contends that American Indian people and the rest of us are locked in a dialectical dance of interpreting each other, a dance in which even our own performance of our "selves" responds to our understanding of how the other is interpreting us.

Assuming American Indian students are well acquainted with their cultural heritage and language is another false assumption. Some Indian students may participate in traditional activities of their cultures, but others may not. In general, Indian children have much in common with other cultures in the United States. They are heavily influenced by the American macroculture (Pewewardy & Willower, 1993).

To be a culturally responsive teacher of American Indian children, a teacher must be prepared to understand, and accept as equally valid, values and ways of life very different from their own. Many teachers speak of American Indian students as being disadvantaged. In reality, many Indian students have the double advantage of knowing and living in several cultures. The teacher, on the other hand, may know only one culture, and may have accepted that culture as being superior without any real thought or study. It is the teacher, then, who is disadvantaged. However, if the teacher does not know, understand, and respect the culture of the students, then the students are at a disadvantage in that teacher's class.

Teachers should be aware of and examine the misuse of the English language. A short play on "black" and "white" words accents good and bad. Perhaps the most obviously bigoted aspect of racism in language would be terms like redskins, prairie nigger, savages, squaw, squaw man, papoose, Little Beaver, chief, brave, buck, the only good Indian is a dead Indian, kill the Indian, save the man, nits turn to lice, bottom of the totem pole, let's have a pow-wow, and many more invented phrases that denigrate indigenous peoples. While these may be facing increasing social disdain, they certainly are not dead. Thousands of Americans continue to utilize these terms.

American Indian English

The type of English spoken by many Indian children today has been influenced by the geographical region in which they reside and exposure to predominantly English speakers. For example, many Indians who live in the western United States have acquired a "western" English accent or dialect The same goes for other regions across the country. Indian people wanting to keep their tribal languages from disappearing have integrated their tribal languages with English and have been able to use both languages interchangeably. They naturally culturally code-switch their speech to fit the social or educational situation.

Similar to Ebonics (Black English), Indian English includes the various idioms, patois, argots, ideolects, and social dialects of Indian people, especially those who have been forced to adapt to colonial circumstances. Williams (1975) contends that African American speech patterns, like any other behavior patterns, were the result of the Africans' attempt to cope with the circumstances (deprivations, dehumanization, etc.) that were perpetrated on them by their oppressors.

As you study, observe, and become acquainted with the people of the community, learn how your student's background of experiences differs from your own. Where students need additional background to understand specific subject matter, you have to help them build that background. Develop instructional materials that are related to student experiences, and provide to the students assignments that relate to their backgrounds. Choose culturally responsive reading materials for the majority of your instruction in reading and comprehensive skills.

Don't assume that any student believes in or follows all the values of what some might consider the traditional Indian culture, or that Indian students follow the patterns of the non-Indian society. Each student is somewhere in between.

Developing the student's self-concept is critical. To do well in school or life, each person must know who they are and be proud of their background. They must have a positive self-image. Much of the curriculum and reading material of the typical school are designed to build this positive self- image on the part of the middle-class white culture. American Indian students may not get any of this positive reinforcement.

The Challenge

Faced with the various "isms" ethnocentrism, elitism, sexism, and lookism—a teacher's impulse might be to ignore them and hope they will go away. They won't, unless teachers do something about it. Teachers may counter them by taking the naive approach of treating all students as though they were the same. Because students are not the same in intellectual capabilities, interests, and experiences, treating them as though they were the same does little good for the students or for our society.

This article is predicated on the faith that teachers can make a difference in the lives of American Indian children and that teachers do make a difference in the social quality of life. Teachers should strive for excellence from their students irrespective of social class, race, sex, or ethnic group affiliation. Ultimately, countering stereotypes and biases should be a selective quest for human excellence rather than a quixotic blast at injustice. Eliciting excellence as an expectation for students is perhaps the most effective tool for countering classroom discrimination.

Of all the misunderstandings among teachers of American Indian children, teachers' lack of cultural knowledge and unfamiliarity with preferred learning styles are the most problematic. If teachers are not aware or willing to admit their ignorance of American Indian culture, languages, and myths, then prejudices and stereotypes about Indians will continue to be developed and perpetuated.

It is important to note that awareness of ignorance and willingness to admit ignorance are two separate issues. My experience has shown me that most teachers are unaware of their ignorance (dysconsciousness) about American Indians. After all, they have "lived among them," "their best friend is Indian," or they are "part Indian" themselves.

There are neither quick cures nor short cuts for the problems and challenges that exist today for teaching American Indian children. You have to learn to understand your students and their culture before you can adapt to their needs. This takes hard work and a willingness to be flexible in both your thinking and your instructional procedures.

Start by learning about the culture, the backgrounds, and the learning styles of your students. Learn enough to develop culturally responsive curriculum and build effective communication in order to promote the self-esteem of your students. Cultural knowledge and crosscultural understanding will help you to accept language differences and new ways of thinking. By meeting parents and participating in open tribal community activities, you can continue to learn and grow in the understanding needed to become a culturally responsive teacher for American Indian children.


  1. There is no universally accepted collective term for the peoples native to North America. Indian, Native American, and Native Peoples are all unsatisfactory terms, I feel, for indicating the diversity of tribal nations existing in the area which is now the United States. That said, Native American, American Indian, Native, Native People, and Indian are used interchangeably throughout the article.
  2. According to Stannard (1992) the most cautious scholars now agree that the pre Columbian (1492) population of the Americas was at least 75 million, with about 10 percent living north of Mexico. Others project a population as high as 145 million, with consensus that population losses, mostly due to exposure to new diseases like smallpox, reached as high as 95 percent.


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Dr. Cornel Pewewardy (Comanche-Kiowa) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Leadership in the School of Education, The University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.

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