Representing Others

Here Now and Always: Investigating How Image Makers Represent Native Americans   

Native American artists/educators Doris Seale, Dr. Charleen Teters, Laurie Eldridge, and Dr. Christine Ballengee-Morris have shaped my understanding about multi-cultural art curriculum. Here are two lessons that help children think about visual culture and the representation of our nation’s first people.

Lesson One: Back To The Future Photo Investigation (2nd/3rd grade)

I noticed that many of my non-native students thought of Native Americans as exotic objects of study, rather than human beings living today. I wanted to foil that construct. For this lesson, I told my students we would be looking at images of Native Americans. I didn’t say what kind of images. They assumed they would be looking at images they had seen in museums and books on tribal cultures. Instead, I gave them photos of contemporary, indigenous Americans, like the ones below.


Students were surprised at the images.

Mimicking the methods used at  natural history museums, I asked my students to analyze each image.

Then we discussed the activity.

Anne: Before you saw the photos, what did you expect to see?

Carson: I thought they were gonna have feathers and weird hats.

Mikey: I was expecting Indians because that’s what Native Americans are.

Charlotte: I thought they’d be real Native Americans….but I guess real Native Americans are their ancestors.

Carson: We were expecting to see prairies and Indians.

Noa: I was not expecting a girl in a bathing suit. That was weird.

Seraphina: I was expecting to see people like Native Americans.

Ryder: I wasn’t expecting to see people golfing.

Jasmine: I expected to see something more like a camping trip.

Emma: We were expecting to see indigenous people.

Anne: What do these photos tell you about Native Americans?

Carson: They’re still alive…right now.

Sierra: Not all native Americans wear old fashioned clothes. They pretty much do what we do now.

Grace: They kind of didn’t show that they were Native Americans.

Drew: They could go to school and play basketball.

Michael: They could go to school and learn indoors.

Seamus: They are just like modern day people.


Some students didn’t see these people in the photographs as “real” Native Americans. They thought that authentic Indians required historic costumes and props. They were skeptical or surprised that Native Americans could be still be modern people. If they looked modern, then some students thought that they were hiding their identity.

This led to an important discussion about past and present day cultures. We talked about how we all have ancestors and we also live in the present day. We talked about how Native Americans today may dress in traditional clothing or do traditional dances at a Pow Wow, but that is in the context of special, cultural celebrations. We talked about traditional celebrations in my students’ lives. The many hybrids of traditional and contemporary life in native culture is confusing for young students. That is a good thing. Such a nuanced, problematic, and complex part of American history should confuse us and cause us to pause and reconsider our ideas.



Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe New Mexico

Eldridge, L. (2008).Teaching about Native American Art: Issues for Art Educators, Translations, 17(2) n.p. Reston, VA, National Art Education Association.


Lesson Two: Picture Makers, Native and Non-Native (2nd/3rd grade)

We first looked at two people who produced images of Native Americans in the early 20th century. I structured the looking of images around these questions:
  • Who makes images of Native Americans? Why?
  • How do images influence our perceptions of the people in them?
  • Can image-makers give people power? How?
  • Can image-makers take power away from people? How?

WILLIAM CODY (Buffalo Bill), who was not a Native American, and his team of actors, set designers, and illustrators, shaped the world’s perceptions of Native Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His Wild West Show and dime novels left a lasting legacy for film makers, television writers, toy companies, and the advertising industry.







PABLITA VELARDE painted images of her own Pueblo community in the early 20th century. When she was 19, the Works Progress Administration employed her to paint murals for the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. She went on to exhibit her narrative paintings globally and set a precedent for relevant, contemporary Indian art.






WALT DISNEY, who was not a Native American, used the persona of the American Indian as a frightening obstacle to the expansion goals of European settlers. He portrayed these slapstick characters in his theme parks and films. Like William Cody, he created one homogenous hybrid of the Indian from a mixture of many tribal cultures.








I asked students to compare the dime novel covers and posters of William Cody’s “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” to the paintings and murals of Pablita Velarde.







We first looked at stylistic differences. Here is what students noticed:

Buffalo Bill                                      Pablita Velarde

Sketchy lines                                  smooth, filled in shapes

More realistic                                flatter, like paper cut outs

More shading                                less shading

muddy colors                                 brighter colors

more movement                           less movement


Then we looked at content.
















I compiled the lists that students created

Buffalo Bill                                                             Pablita Velarde

Fighting                                                                  Calm

Loud Yelling                                                          Normal life

Fighting                                                                  Everybody’s together

Headdresses with Feathers                                  Helping to do daily things

Villains                                                                    Celebrations

Everyone has a weapons                                     Socializing

Indians ambushing cowboys                              Sleeping and resting from work

Indians are chasing cowboys                              Getting dressed

Killing                                                                     Planting

Dying                                                                      Having fun

Their faces look scared                                        Happy

Hiding                                                                     Friends

War                                                                         More nice

Outside                                                                   Inside

Attacks                                                                    Non-fighting

Battles                                                                     Buildings

Crazy                                                                      Quiet

Men                                                                        Little kids

Dangerous                                                            Dancing

Wild                                                                       Joyful

Whips                                                                    Making a pot

Arrows                                                                   Getting ready to set up a home

Mad                                                                       Hunting rabbits


Then we watched a Disney cartoon, Everybody Has a Horse. Students wrote comments again on the representation of Indians in the cartoon: Hiding/Ambushing/Fighting/Hatchets/Scary/Feathers in hats/Fast, sharp, loud, scary music when the Indians came out/Indians start fighting first before cowboys


Final Discussion: We looked at all of our lists from our note-catchers and talked about our findings.

Camille: Compared to Walt Disney, Pablita shows all kinds of Indian things but Walt Disney shows only one kind of Indian thing (warriors)…if people think about Indians that way, then they’ll think they are mean or you might get bored..ok…so they only know one thing..ok they fight…only one thing….boring

Drew: Buffalo Bill  describes Indians in his own way and Pablita draws Indians how they looked.

Michael: If I was an Indian and people only saw what Indians were like in the Disney cartoon, I would feel like people would think that I was mean.

Jack: I think that Buffalo Bill shows a small part of Indian life, I mean some of that is true, but it doesn’t show the whole part.

Grace: I think Pablita Velarde shows who they really were.

Sierra: Pablita Velarde shows how they lived most of the time.

Emma: I think Pablita Velarde’s pictures are truer because they come from what she knows… her people. Buffalo Bill’s pictures come from what he thinks in his head and Walt Disney’s ideas comes just from Buffalo Bill.




Ruch, M.(2001). Pablita Velarde: Painting Her People, New Mexico, New Mexico Magazin Publ.

The Buffalo Bill Museum, Golden, CO

Benes, R. (2002). Native American Picture Books of Change: The Art of Historic Children’s Editions, New Mexico, Museum of New Mexico Press.

Disney, W. (1956) A Cowboy Needs a Horse.

Seale, D. Slapin, B. (2006). A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, Lanham, Maryland, AltaMira Press.

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