Introduction to Native American Literature

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SWBAT explore issues that have impacted the Native American community and that are addressed in the literature by collaborating to examine federal U.S. policy.

Big Idea

To understand the literature of a people, it is essential to learn of the issues that have impacted them.

Lesson Overview

Today marks the first day of a new unit, Native American Literature. To introduce this unit, I engage students in a group activity where they look at specific U.S. policies that have affected the Native American community.  This is a very broad overview, but I am assuming that they are learning more about this community in their U.S. History class.

Before engaging in today’s lesson, I set aside some time to help students make sure their class binder is ready for the beginning of the following unit.

Catching Up For A Fresh Start of A New Unit

15 minutes

I remind students that we are starting a new unit today and that I need them to make sure their binder is ready. This requires that students fish for assignments that should have been turned in already.  My students often have a difficult time organizing their schoolwork and I give them time during class once in a while for this purpose. I  know that there are several students who tune out when I ask for them to turn in certain assignments. I take a minute or two to summarize the assignments that should’ve been turned in the last few days. I give them time to look in their binder and make sure none of these are lurking in their binder. After much paper shuffling and piling of assignments on my desk, we are ready to start the new unit.

Introduction of Unit

15 minutes

I begin by asking students what they know about the history of Native Americans. The answers always vary greatly. Many have very vague pieces of information, including the stereotypical images of tepees and feathers. Most know that Native Americans were conquered by the Europeans and some are able to explain that what happened after conquest is an early example of genocide. Most are also able to talk about reservations and may even know where some are located, although reservations are closely connected to casinos in their mind. The depth of knowledge about Native Americans my students are introduced to in school varies. I am often the first person to tell them that some of the ideas they have about this community are plagued with stereotypes. I tell them that today we will be focusing on some of the policies the U.S. government has implemented that have affected this community.

On the board I project this pdf file with an Overview of Federal Indian Policy to engage students in a broad overview of  these policies. In this video, I explain the purpose of this activity.

We only look at a few pages together because students will later be working in small groups to look closely at the rest of the pages, following a jigsaw method. I project page 1 and direct their attention to part of the title of this document, “They’re Still Here!” and share my opinion that this is a great title because it expresses something very important about the perspective of the U.S. government towards Native Americans. Several students gasp. The title does have a strong effect. I explain that as they engage with the information I am making accessible to them today, they will soon realize that U.S. policy feels like a pendulum. To help me make this point, I skip to page 4 and direct students’ attention to the three assumptions this author suggests help explain the contradictions in U.S. policy. I read them aloud. These also make an impact on students and several begin to openly express disapproval with a heartfelt, “That’s messed up.” At this point I make a reference back to the title to make the point that these assumptions were clearly mistaken and have given rise to what this author calls “the Indian problem.”


Students Work in Small Groups To Examine One Era in U.S. Native American Policy

15 minutes

I show students the timeline on page 2 of the pdf and let them know that each group will be responsible for looking closely at the U.S. policy implemented during one the periods on this timeline. To guide their work I ask them to consider what the Native American community may have been concerned with during this time because of the policy the government implemented. I write that question on the board and tell them that besides explaining the policy assigned to their group, they are to answer this question.

            What would the Native American community be concerned with during this time?

To guide them, I give some suggestions and write these on the board as well: assimilation, autonomy, language, land, identity, memory. These are things I know Native American communities have been concerned with and, more importantly for this unit, are often at the center of Native American literature. I make sure to take a bit to define these, as needed. The only two that usually need to be clarified are assimilation and autonomy.

Students are now ready to work with their group to study the specific policy I assign to them. I have printed page 3-12 from the pdf in advance and distribute one page to each group of 3-4 students. I give groups about 15 minutes to read over the information, underline key details, and write notes on the margins. The notes should explain what the group believes concerned Native American communities during this time. The language in these policies is challenging so I spend this time moving from group to group defining concepts for them and helping them understand what they are reading. Specifically, I make sure students understand words like treaty, allotment, sovereign. Also, I push groups to make explicit notes regarding the terms I have on the board: assimilation, autonomy, language, land, identity, and memory. This student sample notes on federal Indian policy is a good example of the notes students prepared on their paper.

Students work through the end of the period. I let them know that they will be using these notes to present to the entire class in the next lesson.