Native american heritage month activities hero

Meet the Authors: David O'Connor (left) is an American Indian studies consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and Heather Ann Moody is director of American Indian studies at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Find out about the history of Native American Heritage Month, how to move beyond land acknowledgements, and some guiding principles for successfully integrating Native American content into your curriculum. Plus, we've included National Native American Heritage Month activities that you can use in your classroom during the month of November and all year long.

What is Native American Heritage Month?

November became National Native American Heritage Month in 1990, when a joint resolution was passed by the United States Congress, and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. The goal of the month is to acknowledge the original peoples of the land on which the United States of America was built. Additionally, the law was intended to recognize the extensive contributions of Native Americans in the United States and indigenous people across the world.

In 2008, language in the law was updated to include the contributions of Alaska Natives. Every year since, the President of the United States proclaims November as National Native American Heritage Month.

The history of recognition goes back to 1916, when New York became the first state to declare an American Indian Day. Sixty years later, in 1976, Native American Awareness Week was declared as part of the nation’s bicentennial commemoration. Ten years later, it became an annual practice to designate a Native American Heritage Week.

Moving Beyond Land Acknowledgements

Land acknowledgements are becoming popular ways to acknowledge Indigenous people and nations. Commonly, these are written or verbal statements used in schools, businesses, governments, and other organizations, for various events such as conferences, community gatherings, concerts, and festivals.

However, land acknowledgements often end up being more performative than productive, resulting in empty words with no action. To move beyond land acknowledgements, a plan of action should be made with specific steps to support teaching and learning opportunities about American Indian and Alaska Native nations and communities. For more information on how to create an action plan for your school or community, check out Beyond Land Acknowledgment: A Guide from the Native Governance Center.

The murals above liven the hallway of Fort Hall Elementary School, on the Fort Hall Reservation of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, in Idaho.

Integrating Native American Content into Curriculum

“I believe that local and regional histories are effective ways of incorporating Indian history into more familiar pedagogical structures. Understanding not only the history of the original, Indigenous peoples of a particular place, but also the ongoing histories of Indigenous survival, adaptation and . . . resurgence offer effective measures against the hard sediment of previous generations and paradigms.”

— From a Q&A with Ned Blackhawk, Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies, Yale University

Unfortunately, issues arise when school districts think they are successfully integrating First Nations content in the classroom and school curriculum. Here are a couple of them:

  • An overgeneralization of Indigenous people and nations, and thus a lack of recognition of the diversity to be found in the various nations and communities of Native America
  • Teaching about Native Americans only in the past, rather than as active and diverse members and cultures of contemporary times

You can correct these limited ways of teaching about Indigenous peoples. Follow these guiding principles when integrating Native American content any time of the year:

  • Use Native-developed resources, oral histories, and stories, especially if they utilize First Nations pedagogical methods to bring in multiple perspectives that often are not found in non-Native sources. Look into the author, producer, and publishing company, and verify that the materials are created by, or in collaboration with, Indigenous people and/or nations.
  • Don’t just compare and contrast Indigenous cultures and peoples with each other, or with non-Native cultures and peoples. Instead, use the opportunity for students to make connections personally and within their own communities.
  • Integrate multiple perspectives and counter-narratives. For example, have students look at Thanksgiving from the Native American perspective, rather than the more common Pilgrim or Eurocentric perspective. Tell them all lands throughout what is now called the United States had Indigenous names before European arrival. Then, have them research what the land where you live was called before European colonists and settlers arrived.
  • The lessons and activities for Native American Heritage Month below can be utilized throughout the year, not just during November, or on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Check with your local or regional Tribal Nations to see if there are times of the year that might lend themselves to integrating content (i.e., winter storytelling).

Remember to focus on the Tribal Nations from a local, regional, and state-level perspective. This is a great way to introduce students to content when learning about Indigenous peoples and nations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has a list of all federally recognized nations by state.

Be mindful that there may also be some nations and communities that are not federally or state recognized. Additionally, it is important to recognize not only contemporary nations and communities, but also those that were here in the past but no longer exist. The lessons and activities below address these principles and include elements essential for all Tribal Nations including treaties and sovereignty.

Other lessons can, and should be, tailored to the specific location, region, or state where your school or district is located. Many topics, including some listed below, can also be explored through literature. There are excellent texts within for all ages that can be used in classrooms to explore more about Tribal Nations, past, present, and into the future.

Native American Heritage Month Lesson Plans and Activities

1. Whose Land Are You On?

Place-based education provides students the opportunity to understand where they live and who their neighbors are today, as well as who was there in the past. This approach is important in connecting with Indigenous peoples today. Begin with the questions below, then visit the Place-Based Education section of the Wisconsin First Nations website to supplement the discussion. Although this lesson plan and activity example is a resource specific to Wisconsin, the questions are applicable to any place.

The following questions can be posed for research and discussion:

  • How long have humans lived here?
  • Do you think anyone lived here before your family?
  • On whose ancestral lands do you live?

Challenge students to research the lands closest to your school and community. They can use this Native Land Map as a starting point. Have students answer the question: Who are your Tribal neighbors today?

2. Tribal Governments, Treaties, and Sovereignty

Before colonization, Tribal Nations had complete control over their lands and people. This is an example of tribal sovereignty, which refers to the inherent right of Native Americans and Alaska Natives to govern themselves. When treaties were made between early settlers from various European nations and later of the United States federal government, Tribal Nations still retained the right to govern their own people and manage their resources. Eventually, the federal government took on the responsibility to protect lands and resources of Tribal Nations, as well as their right to self-govern.

Have students explore Native Knowledge 360°, a resource developed by the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The Essential Understandings framework from NMAI builds on the 10 themes of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) national standards and reveal key concepts about the diverse cultures, histories, and contemporary lives of Indigenous people, communities, and nations. The Essential Understandings Regarding Montana Indians is another good resource for thinking about Tribal Nations from a local, regional, and state perspective.

Next, have students choose one of the following activities to complete.

  • Find treaties that were made locally, regionally, or with the state. Answer the following questions: What was in the treaty? How do you see the impact of these treaties today? Were people moved? Were resources given up?
  • Research what sovereignty means and answer the following questions: What is sovereignty? What does this concept mean for Tribal Nations historically and today? How does sovereignty connect to Tribal governments?
  • Research where the Tribal governments are locally, regionally, or across your state. Who are the leaders and how does the government work? How do they work with other governments, including local, county, state, and the federal government?

3. Diversity of Histories and Cultures

When it comes to the history and cultures of Tribal Nations, it is vital to understand not only the past and the significant changes that took place over time, but also the impact of history on the people and communities today. It’s also important to understand how each culture adapts, changes, and survives in contemporary society. This perspective is also a good way to more clearly see the diversity amongst Tribal Nations.

Challenge students to complete one or more of the following activities:

  • Identify the Tribal Nations that currently live and have lived in your local area, region, and state, and the ways they used the land, water, and other natural resources in the area.
  • Read the origin stories of the Tribal Nations locally, regionally, and in your state. How are they similar? How are they different? Why do you think there are variations? How do they compare with what you were taught?
  • Create a timeline of the Tribal Nations locally, regionally, and in your state that shows their original location and where they are today. Do any of them intersect? Why were they moved? How did this move impact their lives and cultures?

4. Research Indigenous Peoples and Nations of Today

Encourage students to research prominent Native Americans throughout history and today. There are numerous people to research both in history and contemporarily from a variety of areas ranging from stewardship, politics, health care, literature, art, music, sports, and science.

First have students choose a figure to research. Here is a list of suggestions:

  • Ada Deer, the first woman to head the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Deb Haaland, United States Secretary of the Interior
  • Joy Harjo, the nation’s first Native American poet laureate
  • John Herrington, former NASA astronaut and the first Native American to travel into space
  • Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first American Indian woman in the United States to receive a medical degree
  • Temryss Lane, former professional soccer player
  • Mary Golda Ross, the first woman engineer in the history of Lockheed
  • Maria Tallchief, one of America’s first great prima ballerinas
  • Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal for the U.S.
  • John Trudell, a poet, recording artist, actor, and speaker
  • Frank Waln, an award-winning hip hop artist and music producer
  • Sean Sherman, chef, cookbook author, and promoter of Indigenous cuisine

Next, have students do research to answer the following questions: What Tribal Nation is the figure you're researching affiliated with? How have they contributed to the culture of the United States of America?

Indigenous Texts Inline
Here's a look at David O’Connor’s collection of Indigenous histories, literature, and other texts.

Share Native American Heritage Month Activities

Let us know how you honor Native American Heritage Month in your classroom. Tell us about your favorite activities and lesson plans, or if you tried any of our activities, let us know how they worked out. Connect with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or email us at Shaped@hmhco.com.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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Learn more about HMH Social Studies, which presents the rich, endlessly inventive story of our world, challenging students to dig deep into the past.

Additional Resources for Further Exploration

There are plenty of quality Native American Heritage Month lesson plans and resources available if you know where to look. Here are our recommendations for instructional resources, as well as news and media sources to keep up to date with contemporary issues throughout Indian Country!

HMH Resources
  • Podcast: On Embracing Native Culture in Alaska with Danielle Riha

    Podcast: On Embracing Native Culture in Alaska with Danielle Riha

    Meet Danielle Riha, a middle school teacher at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage. She is passionate about equity, indigenous languages, and culturally relevant lessons. She was the Alaska Teacher of the Year and one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year Award in 2019.

    Ali Habashi
    Shaped Editor

  • Infusing Multiple Narratives in History Classrooms: Native American Studies

    Infusing Multiple Narratives in History Classrooms: Native American Studies

    How do we reframe our pedagogy to incorporate multiple narratives within our classrooms? We can start with three building blocks: reading, content integration, and scaffolding of information.

    David J. O’Connor
    American Indian Studies Consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

    Paul ST Rykken
    Lecturer, First Nations Studies Department, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Additional Resources

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