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Dressed to impress history pupils

When studying the native peoples of the North Americas it is often difficult to get the children to appreciate the anti-Indian attitudes that many people in America had until recently. The textbooks all celebrate a positive view of Sioux and Plains Indians' culture. To get the children to think about racist attitudes and the misapprehensions society had about the native peoples, I like to use "hot-seating" and role-play.

Using a bonnet and shawl (found in a charity shop), I begin the lesson by telling the class that I'm Rosie May, a pioneer travelling across America, and that I'm here to warn them about the "Indian savages".

I show the pupils images of the Battle of Little Big Horn, in 1876, and tell them all about scalping. I finish this starter by showing a five-minute clip of an old cowboy film showing the "redskins" attacking a camp and the hero declaring that "the only good Indian is a dead one".

I taught this lesson after the pupils had researched projects on Native American culture, so they were shocked by this pronouncement. Some of the class called out that I was "wrong" and "racist" and one boy said: "That just shows you know nothing about them."

I challenged the class to come up with evidence to prove to me that there is more to their culture than the one-sided picture I had just given them.

After 15 minutes in small groups they presented their findings.

One group talked about the Indians' love of the environment and animals.

Others talked about art and a third group talked about family. One group very cleverly commented that the images of the Indians in battle showed them with guns "given to them by the white man" and concluded that tribal wars were started by "white settlers interfering with beaver and buffalo hunting".

They were passionate about convincing the settler to have a more open-minded attitude and were satisfied when Rosie May declared that perhaps she was wrong after all.

Becky Hewlitt History teacher, Perryfields High School, Oldbury, West Midlands

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