The Five Ws of Native Americans

native american learning

November is Native American Heritage Month, and it is also the month when most schools in the U.S. study Thanksgiving, often including Native Americans in the study. Get a broad view of Native Americans with a Who-What-Where-Why-When study.


Who are or were the Native Americans in your area? Often, young students have an image of Native Americans that is based on Thanksgiving clip art.

In fact, there are many different languages and cultures included under the general term “Native Americans.” All the people living in the United States before Europeans came here are called Native Americans, but there were about 250 different languages spoken by the various people living here at that time.

There are nearly three million Native Americans in the U.S. now, or 5.2 million people claiming Native American heritage, according to the census. This is about 1.7% of the population, though some states have higher populations — such as Oklahoma with 12.9% Native Americans — and some have lower percentages.


Native Americans in the U.S. are sometimes members of an official tribe or nation with its own government and laws. There are more than 500 recognized nations of this kind, including the Cherokee, Navajo, and Iroquois Nations.

These tribal groups are known as “dependent governments” and are still subject to the laws of the United States, but Congress rarely takes actions against the tribal governments. For example, the Cherokee nation recently removed from their rolls all the descendents of slaves of the Cherokee who were displaced during the Trail of Tears, making them ineligible for various federal programs. While the U.S. government tried to change the minds of the Cherokee government on this point, they were not able to do so, and they did not overrule the tribal leaders.

Have students compare the constitution of the Cherokee Nation and of the Iroquois Nation with that of the United States. Make sure that students understand that Native American cultures, language, and governments are equivalent to other cultural groups studied.


Map Native Americans with a great interactive resource from Click on your state on the interactive map and find the Native American groups that live or lived in your state. Research the groups nearest to you, or divide the class and create reports for each state.

The elements of the report will depend on grade level and time available, but students should at least learn the names (with correct pronunciation) of the local Native Americans, where they came from, and where they went to if they have moved on.

Step the project up by transforming reports into Google Earth tours. Watch some tours dealing with Native Americans:

Ready to create your own Google Earth tours? Here’s a tutorial.


Why do we call this wide range of cultural groups “Native Americans”? Most anthropologists believe that Native Americans came to what is now the United States from Asia long ago. Scientists are not sure how long ago, but by the time Europeans came to the United States, there were about a million Native Americans. Europeans believed that they had a right to take over the lands even though there were already people living here. National Geographic has a brief video that presents the basic information simply but clearly.


One of the things we’ve noticed among K-12 students is that many have the idea that the Native Americans used to live in the United States and are now gone. It’s important to recognize that there are still Native Americans, and that their way of life has changed just as most other peoples’ ways of life have changed.

This year, make sure that your students have a chance to get a more accurate understanding of Native Americans.

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  1. Pingback: trail of tears | crossed wires

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