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May 1992 - Issue No. #08

Native Rights: A Role Play

By Jane Califf

Reprinted from the Council on Interracial Books for Children, Unlearning "Indian" Stereotypes.
CIBC 1841 Broadway, New York, NY 10023

"What do you know about Indian people?" I asked a class of first-graders.

"They kill people."
"They tie people to a stake and burn them."
"They chase people from their homes."

I was shocked. Somehow I thought that six-year-olds are too young to have internalized such stereotypes, but I had underestimated the power of TV, books and comics. Most assuredly, the children's responses did not fit into my lesson plan. I had come to class prepared to talk about the everyday life of the Lenni Lenape, who had once lived in the part of New Jersey where I was then teaching. I thought that if my students could appreciate aspects of Lenni Lanape life, I would be helping them ot understand and respect Native Americans.

However, I realized that this would not be enough to counteract the false impressions the children in my class had of Native Americans as "savages" and "killers." I would try again. I invited a Native American parent to visit the class and help me put on a skit to demonstrate why Native Americans fought the whiter settlers. I introduced the parent as a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation. An excited murmur echoed through the room at the thought of seeing a "real live Indian."

Setting the stage for the skit, I told the children that our guest would pretend to be a Lenni Lanape and that he and I were about put on a play about the Native Americans who were the first people to live in and around Planfield, New Jersey, where the school was situated. I described ho different the area looked then. I took the role of the people from across the ocean who, because they were poor, unemployed and landless, were coming to find a better life for themselves. I told the class to pretend that the hall was the ocean and classroom was where the settlers landed. I went out into the hall after explaining that when I reappeared, it meant I had just completed a long ocean voyage and would need a place to live.

When I entered the classroom, I asked, "Who's that?" pointing to the Native American parent. "An Indian!" "Well, I'm going to see if he will give me some land." I explained my need in pantomime since we didn't know each other's language, and he graciously let me use one-fourth of the room. Meanwhile, he showed me what animals to hunt, how to hunt, what vegetables to eat and how to plant them. Another boat came; the act was repeated. Several times this happened until my collaborator was standing in a corner of the classroom with one square foot of space left. I said, "I think I hear something again." "Not another boat!" several children exclaimed and ran to the door to check. " Yes, there's another boat!" they said, thoroughly caught up in the drama. "Come on over," I called and 50 more phantom settlers entered the room.

I asked the class, "Should the Lenni lanape give up his space in the corner for these new people?" "No," one boy said seriously, "because then he would be in the closet." The class laughed. A girl jumped up. "If he has to give up that little piece of land, then he won't have any land a all, and that's no laughing matter." "Let's take sides then," I suggested. "Some of you be Lenni Lenape people, and some of you be settlers with me. We'll have to discuss this problem." They chose sides. A "settler" on my side began: "We're going to take all your land." No, you're not!" said a young "Lenni Lanape," stamping her foot. Suddenly and spontaneously a "war" broke out. Children pushed, shoved, lept over desks and ran around the room defending their side in a mock battle. They became so caught up in the action that we were able to bring the drama to a close only with some difficulty.

"What happened?" we then asked. "There was a fight!" "Why?" "Because they were going to take all of the Lenni Lenape's land, and that wasn't fair." We then summarized the point of the skit, suggesting that the next time they watched a TV show in which Native American people were fighting settlers, they would understand a little better why. It was not that Native Americans like to kill people, but that despite their hospitality to the newcomers, their land and homes were being taken away and they had to fight back. I did not pursue this any further except to say that most of the Native Americans' land was eventually taken from them by force. Native Americans fought back but lost, I told my class, and now there are only a few places left that they can call their own.

The apparent effectiveness of the approach which I have described was brought home to me forcefully some time later. A seven year old, who felt keenly in injustices Native Americans have suffered, told me that one night he was watching a TV program in which he saw Native Americans portrayed as wildly attacking peaceful settlers. "I went right up to the TV and turned it off. I told my mother and father that that wasn't a fair movie."


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Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
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