How to Answer Kids' Questions About Native Americans

american flag, teach diversity at homePart of teaching kids about diversity is giving them truthful answers to their questions about Native American history.

But as we respond to kids' history questions with the truth about Native Americans, their followup questions can get pretty ... uh ... direct? embarrassing? awkward?

It usually happens when you're out in public and everyone can hear what you're saying.

Here's an example. Imagine you're at the grocery store contemplating the outrageous prices when your child casually asks:

"Did Christopher Columbus really discover America?"

Time freezes. Every eyeball slowly turns your way to see what you're going to say.

Trust us, you'll be a lot happier with your answer when you feel prepared. Here's some kid-oriented Native American Q&A.

How to Answer Kids' Questions About Native Americans Tip #1: Keep it simple

Native American history for kids is a touchy subject these days. The truth is that most kids just want a simple answer and that's all. As adults, we have a tendency to provide the full backstory behind our answer. But kids usually ignore that part.

Have you ever found yourself talking to nobody because your kid is long gone after hearing the only part of the answer they needed? It's really common.

Try to keep your answer simple and short. So if your kid asks "Who was here first, us or Native Americans?," all you have to say is "Native Americans."

TIP: Kids learn by processing the information we give them. The simpler the answer to their question, the easier it is for them to process the information. They don't need any information beyond what they're specifically asking.

How to Answer Kids Questions About Native Americans Tip #2: Remember (or bookmark) this Q&A

mom talking to son, teach diversity at home

While the Native American history questions and answers below are by no means exhaustive, they'll hopefully provide a good starting point for you to respond to the inevitable awkward questions and statements that kids come up with. 

#1 - “Do Native Americans still do rain dances?”

“Yes some tribes have maintained the tradition of rain dances to encourage crop growth.”

#2 - “Did Native Americans really use smoke signals?”

“Yes some tribes used smoke signals a long time ago to indicate oncoming danger. But now they get their information just like us-from TV and the Internet.”

#3 - “Do Native Americans still live in teepees?”

“No they live in houses and apartments just like us.”

#4 - “What do Native Americans prefer to be called?”

“‘American Indians,‘ ‘Native Americans, ‘ and ‘Indigenous Americans‘ all refer to the same people. If possible, native people prefer to be called by their tribal name, like Cherokee or Apache. Otherwise, use ‘'American Indian' or 'Indigenous American'."

#5 - “How many Native Americans are there?”

“There are about 2 million Native Americans left in the United States - that's less than 1% of our population.”

#6 - “Is there anything I can do to help Native Americans?”

“What you're doing right now is really valuable. Asking questions and learning the truth about Native Americans is enormously helpful.”

#7 - "How did Native Americans get to the Americas?"

“Native Americans came either by foot over a land bridge or by using ancient boats. They were here centuries before Christopher Columbus.”

#8 - “Why don't Native Americans like sports teams with Indian mascots?”

“Because defining an entire human population with one word (like Redskins) is racist and hurtful.”

#9 - “Can Native Americans vote?“


#10 - “What's a reservation?“

“When European immigrants arrived in America, they moved the Native Americans to patches of land called reservations.“

#11 - “Do all Native Americans live on reservations? “

“No. More than half of Native Americans now live in urban environments.“

#12 - “What do modern Indian Reservations look like? “

“It varies. Some reservations are ultra-modern cities and other reservations are poverty-stricken and still struggling. “

#13 - “What's a pow wow? “

“A pow wow is a social gathering that honors cultural traditions like dancing and drumming. “

#14 - “What's a papoose? “

“A type of bag used to carry a child on one's back.“

#15 - “Why do Native Americans wear feathers? “

“Eagles are considered sacred and many tribes view eagle feathers as one of the highest symbols of respect. “

#16 - “Why are Native Americans called Indians? “

“Christopher Columbus was lost when he came to America and mistakenly thought he was in the Indies.“

#17 - “Do Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving? “

“Some do and some don't.“

#18 - “What kind of food do Native Americans like? “

“Traditional Native Americans crops generally included corn, beans, and squash. But now they eat the same food as you and me.

#19 - “What's a totem pole? “

“A totem pole is a tall sculpture, usually carved from a single tree. Totem poles were mainly carved by tribes in the Pacific Northwest, and usually included numerous faces.“




That should get you started on answering kids' Native American history questions. You might want to bookmark this page so you're prepared instead of blindsided. Just an idea!

More Resources

If you found this article helpful, please check out How to tell kids the true story of Native Americans. It's a concise guidebook for parents that's full of more suggestions about how to tell kids the truth about Native American history. 

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