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What is the correct collective term for the people who were living in “North America” when the Europeans arrived?
No one knows.
I read two or three articles written by various “First People” from various part of North America, and I have definitively determined that I have no clue.
I have decided go to with “First Nations” in homage to my four months as a Political Science major in university, where perhaps the only thing I learned that I still remember is that “nations” are made up of people with a shared culture and religion, while a “state” is a political entity. You can have a “nation” that has no “state”.
One of the things I have learned from living and traveling overseas is that some countries have more “nations” within them than you can imagine, and depending on how the state was formed, the actual present-day “state” can have surprisingly little to do with it.
So “nation” seems more accurate than “people”, and I don’t think the term “first” is really an issue.
As much as possible, I do try to go with the proper name of the nation, but first, that’s complicated, and second, the focus is FREE texts, which means many OLD texts, so a little political incorrectness is to be expected and I would advise, explained to the children.
The subject of this article is a tricky one because it’s hard to even know how to refer to the people who live in the Americas prior to the entrance of people from European nations, who were then of course followed by people from still more parts of the world.
Although I (and you) should expect to find some outdated use of language in ideas in many books than are in the public domain, as these texts are, stories about First Nations seems to me to be among the most difficult. There is no way to avoid the term “Indian” if you are working with old texts. There just isn’t. But the books I’m going to recommend are by people who were doing the best they could to give people from Native nations a voice, in print and in English, so that children could learn about them through reading about Native people’s own experiences. If you scroll down, I also have some resources for modern (and therefore more politically correct) retellings to use in addition, if you have the means to obtain them.
I maintain there is still something to be said for the older tales, as long as the nomenclature is explained to the children, to get to hear the voices of people who lived traditionally, and in at least some cases, remember life before issues with European Americans really began to undermine it.
Types of Tales
If you want to give some context to the tales, a lot of them fall into two main categories, creation stories, often called “Pourquoi Tales” (pour quoi means “why” in French) or Trickster Tales.
Elementary schools very often do units on “pourquoi” tales, which is fine, but if you don’t do some context with them, they get boring fast. Many of the stories revolve around why an animal came into being or why an animal has a certain distinctive feature. Then there are other tales, creation stories, that are more general and about how the world got created.
You can find pourquoi tales from almost every culture, and First Nation’s cultures are one good resource.
The second type of tale, and in my opinion, more fun, are trickster tales. There are trickster tales that come from Africa, more that come from Native American cultures, and then a related group of them in African American culture.
You really can’t make any assumptions about where the stories came from and how we got similar stories, but as with all types of folk literature, I think it’s fun to read different stories to see similarities and differences.
It’s unclear whether similar stories between these three groups were passed through the oral tradition or not, and if they were, who heard them from whom.
Regardless, you will find both types of stories, and more, in the collections below.
Below you will find a variety of materials appropriate for ages 5 and up, including story retelling, recently written instructional materials, and an amazing archive of vintage photography.
First Nations Cultures and Regions
Before I started writing this article, I looked into the proper terminology. I know the MOST proper terminology is to refer to First Nations by the proper name, but let me tell you, that is complicated. In any case, I only have a few collections so by necessity, I needed a name with a “wide net”.
But even when you are TRYING to use the right name, that is hard. From the little bit of research I did, I found that I came to this topic already confused on several points. Some of the names I learned in school, including Sioux and Nez Pearce, are now considered inappropriate. Somehow I had already figured out that “Eskimo”, which is what I learned as a child, is now “Inuit”, but I actually thought that Inuit is the name for all northern Native people, and today I found out that is wrong.
I think the First Nation names we learned in school were VERY broad categories. I didn’t know there were so many subgroups and confederacies of nations, so each time I encountered an unfamiliar name, I didn’t know whether it was a new nation, a broader term referring to groups of nations, or a new “politically correct” term that was replacing an older name.
An example of my confusion comes from my understanding of the First Nations historically located near where I now live. I literally live in a city called Chesapeake, and I know that it’s named after the nation that was here before the English came. But depending on the source, I was told that the Nansemond Nation lived here. At times, they are called the Powatan, and at other times, Alquonquin. Native nations had confederacies and bigger and smaller groups somewhat the way we all do, but it seems like people are always trying to oversimplify it.
So at the end of the day, my advice is proceed with caution.
Regardless, and despite the difficulties with being “politically correct” the worst thing you can do is ignore First People cultures and nations, so don’t do that just because you are confused or fear political incorrectness.
If I have this problem with anything I need to teach, I explain my confusion to my students. I tell them I’m doing the best I can, and if they learn anything that will help, to please let me know.
That’s called modeling: showing kids that adults aren’t perfect and that we are all trying to to our best.
Vintage Collections of First Nations Folk Tales
George Bird Grinnell’s Stories from Blackfeet, Pawnee, and Cheyanne Nations
One of the coolest things about digging out all of these old stories is that I’ve found so many authors who really should not be forgotten and are definitely worth studying and reading about on their own.
George Bird Grinnell is one of those individuals. He was a well known conservationist and anthropologist who contributed to laws protecting the bison.
His books are mostly appropriate for middle school and up.
Blackfoot Lodge Tales and Blackfoot Indian Stories
FREE Full Text Blackfoot Indian Stories
Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk Tales
When Buffalo Ran
When Buffalo Ran is the story of a Plains man (I can’t find the specific nation…comment if you know) named Wikis. The full text link below includes photographs of the real individuals whose stories are written down by Grinnell.
It’s an amazing resource to have.
FREE Full Text Link (with illustrations) When Buffalo Ran
Pawnee, Blackfoot, and Cheyenne: History and Folklore of the Plains
Grinnell, biography of George Bird Grinnell
This biography is for adults and older teens.
Find a FREE excerpt from Grinnell here: THE SECRET LIFE OF GEORGE GRINNELL, ONE OF AMERICA’S GREATEST CONSERVATIONISTS
More Free Reads
You can find an extensive collection of Grinnell’s work at Project Gutenberg for free, or for a low cost but simpler download on Amazon. Always double check the quality of the text before purchasing public domain materials on Amazon.
Cyrus MacMillian’s Tales from European and Indigenous Canadians
Canadian Wonder Tales
These stories are a little confusing because stories from English and French settlers are mixed with stories about indigenous people.
MacMillan went around and wrote down the stories that he was told. Considering the isolation that people of all ethnicities lived in, which would mean reliance on the oral tradition, this is also a pretty amazing artifact.
These stories are appropriate for children about age 6 and up.
Cyrus MacMillan was a Canadian English professor and politician.
See the bottom of this article for a FREE modern unit of study on Canada intended for 8-9 year olds.
Frances Jenkins Olcott’s Much More Awesome than you might guess Collection
The Red Indian Fairy Book
Yeah, I know, it is with some trepidation that I even opened this book given its name, which is cringeworthy in 2020, but you have to understand if Olcott, or her publisher, did not use the phrase no one would know what the book was about, and you can’t sell books if people don’t know what they are about.
I’m guessing using the phrase “Red Indian” was probably pretty politically correct for its time because it acknowledged that there was another country in the world operating under the name “India” with a population commonly known as “Indians”, while Americans were still operating under Columbus’ mistake.
Anyway, your reservations are going to drop away pretty quickly when you take a look at at the Table of Contents because Olcott has ingeniously organized this book by months, starting with April, and including a few words that gives us the theme of each section, for example, April is “the month of spring and rainbows”. Below that, after the title of each story, is the nation of origin.
The nations that are represented by at least one story include the following: Chippewa, Navaho, Micmac, Iroquois, Wyandos, Hopi, Salteaux, Algonquin, Whellemooch, Wichita, Blackfoot, Passamaquoddy, Yakima, Mohawk, Arapaho, Zuñi, Caddo, Pima, Arikara, Cherokee, Skidi Pawnee, Meneminee, Flathead, Vuntakutchin, and Wyandot.
Frances Jenkins Olcott was the first Head of the Children’s Library in Pittsburgh. She later gave up her position to write for children full time. Her informative collections were big sellers in their day, and with the attention to detail that she gives to this book, I can see why.
FREE full text access to The Red Indian Fairy Book
Recently Published First People Story Retellings
The website What Do We Do All Day is my go-to for lists of children’s books on any topic. The books on this site are either in print or commonly available in public libraries. The author of this site is based in Manhattan (NYC), where she accesses her books.
Here are two options, one for younger kids and one for older:
Edward S. Curtis’ Priceless Photography of First Nations People and Daily Life
Edward S. Curtis devoted a large portion of his adult life to photographing Native Americans while they were still living their traditional lifestyle.
I personally had never heard of him before I started researching this article, and each time I click on something I have to stop and metaphorically pick my chin up off the floor because I can’t believe the depth and breadth of the resources available.
Even though I find I can roughly identify the general regions of the names of some nations, partly through school and partly through modern place names, I know my knowledge is superficial and cursory. Seeing what is available online now, and free, there is no excuse for sloppy instruction on First Nations.
I would have students use this material to do individual or paired projects on nations they choose and give particular attention to the Nations that came from my locality.
As of publication, the three collections below are available on Kindle Unlimited or for a low price on Kindle. I would recommend viewing on a Kindle Fire or tablet rather than a regular Kindle.
Keep in mind that the photographs are in the public domain; see the link below.
This is one of if not THE best Free Resource I have ever found. The complete text with separate photograph files of Curtis’ 15 Volume “Book” (really an encyclopedia) The North American Indian has been digitized by Northwestern University. Access is completely open.
Edward S. Curtis’ The North American Indian from Northwestern University.
The Wikipedia entry on Curtis is also top-notch and includes an excellent sampling of his photography.
Modern Lessons about American First Nations
If you remember the Core Knowledge Curriculum that was strong about 20 years ago, it is actually still around, and they offer FREE resources on their website if you sign up with your name and e-mail address.
Find more information about the Core Knowledge Foundation below.
Native Americans unit for Kindergarten (ages 5-6) children about First Nations in the current United States.
The Earliest Americans for U.S. grade 3 (ages 8-9)
Native Americans: Cultures and Conflicts for U.S. grade 5 (ages 10-11)
Canada for U.S. grade 3 (ages 8-9)
About E.D. Hirsch and the Core Knowledge Foundation
E.D. Hirsch was a professor at the University of Virginia, and his work is the basis for the Virginia public school curriculum.
His materials may be a bit American-centric, but other than that, they are balanced and do not promote any particular religion or any other bias.
All American instructional materials that are considered for public/state schools are made available in public libraries, and any citizen has the right to file their opposition to any of them through their local school boards, so American materials, except for that American bias, tend to be pretty balanced because publishing companies naturally want school systems to purchase their materials.
Why Knowledge Matters is his most recent book; you might remember his most famous books, Cultural Literacy and What Every American Needs to Know.
Most current American curricula, most specifically The Common Core, are skills based. Hirsch’s curriculum is content/knowledge based.
Guess what? Kids need both combined with concepts. At any rate, knowledge and skills don’t cancel each other out.
If you are a parent, and your children have a skills based curriculum at school, you might want to fill in the content at home.
Remember, Common Core=Skills
You Tell Us
What resources do you have for learning about First Nations?