Native American Heritage Month: Identity & StorytellingJennifer Epping
Many lessons ran through my mind while reading There There by Tommy Orange. We could talk about the parallel plot text structure; we could talk about the characterization of Native Americans; we could talk about mental health and addiction. So really, however you use this book with your students, you can’t go wrong.
This lesson will focus on telling stories. Writing narratives, essentially, because the entire book is filled with short stories from Native Americans with one thing in common: going to the Powwow in Oakland, California. It is quite fascinating to realize that every event you might attend and every person you see at that event has a story behind how they got there and where they’ve been—the good and the bad.
In the first “Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield” chapter that starts on page 45, narrator Opal has a discussion with her mother about telling their truth to the world because the world has a skewed version of who they are, who their people are, and what the government has “taught” them about, in her instance, Native American people.
On page 57, Opal’s mother explains that the history of Native Americans is wrong and slanted one way to make white people look better. She starts off the conversation with the life lesson of always telling your own truthful stories at any chance to educate others on their identities and life.
“Opal Viola, baby girl,” my mom said, and moved some hair behind my ear. She’d never, not once, called me baby girl.
“You have to know what’s going on here,” she said. “You’re old enough to know now, and I’m sorry I haven’t told you before. Opal, you have to know that we should never not tell our stories, and that no one is too young to hear. We’re all here because of a lie. They’re lying to us now!”
On the next page, 58, Opal’s mother goes on to talk about how the government will never tell the true story of Native American history and what truly happened on Thanksgiving.
And so what we could do had everything to do with being able to understand where we came from, what happened to our people, and how to honor them by living right, by telling our stories.
- Have students write down their different identities—gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, other heritage information, etc. Then have them choose one they think the world or their community misunderstands the most.
- Have them use the outline style below to organize their thoughts.
- Paragraph 1: What is the world or community’s misunderstood view about this identity in general? Explain with specific examples to prove this is how it is.
- Paragraph 2: What is the true story behind this identity or the people with this identity? What are their intentions, their needs, their wants?
- Paragraph 3: Tell your truth! Write a story about who you are in this identity. Talk about others who identify with you. What is the story you want the world or your community to know about what it’s like with this identity?
- Teachers: Offer a way to publish this story or get it read by people in local government or school administration, if appropriate for the situation. It’s nice to have students tell their stories, but to make an impact of change, their words should be published or be available to be widely read. If students are nervous, suggest they leave their name off so people with that identity can be heard as a people, instead of just by one person.
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Jennifer Epping is a high school English and journalism teacher in Des Moines, Iowa. She has a passion for reading, writing, and making lame jokes to her students just to see them laugh or roll their eyes. She just concluded her ninth year teaching. Epping graduated from Iowa State University with a BS in journalism and mass communication (2010) and BA in English Education (2013). She attended New York University’s Summer Publishing Institute (2010), and spent some time in children’s book publishing in New York.