SchoolArts Room

Respecting and Honoring Native American Culture

By Nancy Walkup, posted on Feb 26, 2017

Growing up on the Navajo Reservation, I had opportunities to discover and learn about my own culture. Navajo history and language were a meaningful parts of the schools’ curricula. I was taught that certain elements of Navajo culture are respected and honored as sanctified and, because these elements are sacrosanct, they must not be replicated. Because of this, when I explore other cultures, I do so with sensitivity and question my own interpretations.

This mudhead katsina was made for commercial purposes, not ceremonial.
Teaching Culture with Sensitivity and Respect
Denise Horton
published in the March 2017 SchoolArts Magazine
 Fast forward to today's quickly changing society. A quick Internet search of any topic can provide information about how to make almost anything. This includes replicating or appropriating objects sacred to Native American tribes. Teachers unfamiliar with cultural icons have too often taught their students to create carbon copies of American Indian artwork. To this I respond in the bluntest of terms. There is no meaningful learning by copying Native American artwork; moreover, it is disrespectful to indigenous tribes and their beliefs.
One example of this is duplication of Hopi Katsinas. The Hopi embrace Katsinas (also known as Kachina dolls) as sacred. For this reason, only certain people are allowed to create them. An assortment of activities can now be found online to make objects similar to Katsinas. Too often these production activities are insensitive and presented without knowledge of cultural significance.
Another example of disrespectful treatment of sacred Native American iconography is Navajo sand paintings. Traditionally created in a hogan and then destroyed at the close of a ceremony, sand paintings hold particular significance to Navajo culture. To underscore this significance, the Navajo word for sand painting translates as the place where the gods come and go. These “dry” paintings were once so sacred that they could not be recreated outside of a ceremony. For teachers, finding activities that imitate sand painting processes is simple; however, these activities rarely bring cultural awareness.
Each and every tribe across the Americas is very different so I would strongly advise you to do some research to find a way to teach about that specific culture. So how do you go about it the right way? My first suggestion is to find information about specific tribes. I would research the tribe and find a contact to ask if what you’re doing respects that tribe’s beliefs and values.
A relevant exercise would be to examine a particular tribe’s history or story, and have students create it in their own personal way rather than making a copy of a tribe's cultural item. Allowing students to create something that personally resonates with their own experience is powerful and original.
I have observed far too often the Katsinas, sand paintings, dream catchers, and totem poles that have a blatant disregard for the beliefs of the culture that created them. I encourage you to teach about these cultures but also be mindful of what those symbols, images, and objects really mean. It may be that you end up with unique pieces of student artwork rather than replicas. The bigger lesson to be learned is creating awareness and sensitivity about cultures other than your own. The first step is to ask yourself if you have the facts right and is it ok to be teaching how to make something a culture may find highly sacred. Remember, students will emulate what you teach. Demonstrate through your teaching a sense of tolerance, caring, and empathy.  
Denise Horton teaches at Isaac Middle School in Phoenix, Arizona.