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This Native American Heritage Month, build your ELA curriculum with Native American folktales that will help your students elevate their reading comprehension and learn more about the Native American community.
Many Native American stories revolve around humans, nature, and how they came to be in the world. In this blog post, we’ve compiled 7 compelling Native American folktales for elementary students, including traditional stories from the Haida, Iroquois, Lenni Lenape, and Navajo communities.
“How the Stories Came to Be” by Mabel Powers (3rd Grade)
This Native American story describes the beginning of traditional storytelling in the Iroquois community. Every Iroquois tribe has a storyteller who shares traditional tales from wigwam to wigwam, keeping their oldest stories alive. As time passes, the younger generations stop telling these stories, leaving only a few elders who remember them.
Show the Related Media video “Story Telling” to provide students with information about what storytelling means to an Indigenous tribe. Start a class discussion by asking students why the Stolo people have had to rely on oral storytelling. What do the Stolo people learn from the stories that have been passed down from older generations?
“Coyote and Fire: A Folktale from the Pacific Northwest” by D.M. Souza (3rd Grade)
In this folktale from the Pacific Northwest, the skookums are the only group in the world who can harness Fire, but they refuse to share it with people. One blistering winter, the people ask a coyote to capture Fire from the skookums before they freeze to death. The coyote devises a plan with other animals to get Fire that the people would learn to recreate for warmth and cooking for ages to come.
Ask students Discussion Question 2, “This story explains how people first got Fire. Have you heard other stories that explain how something came to be? What was it and what did it explain? Think of something else that is hard to explain, (e.g. why snakes have no legs, why cows have spots, how people learned to walk), and create a story to explain it. Then, share your story with others.” This activity is a great way to build students’ creativity and writing skills.
“The Day the Dogs Disappeared” by Shelley Walden (3rd Grade)
In this Native American folktale, coyotes and humans live together in harmony for many years, until dogs become humans’ favorite companions. The coyotes try to win back the humans’ hearts by tricking the house dogs into switching places with them.
After students finish reading the text, lead a classroom discussion with Discussion Question 1, “In the story, the coyotes want to act like dogs so that the humans will love them. Do you think it is a good idea to try to be like someone else? Why or why not? Have you ever tried to act a certain way or do something in order to get someone's attention or to make friends? How did it make you feel?”
“The Sacrifice of the Rainbow Bird: A Tale from the Lenni Lenape” by John M. Burt (4th Grade)
In this Lenni Lenape folktale, Rainbow Bird asks the Supreme Being to stop blowing snow to help save his friends, the humans, from the cold winter. The Supreme Being refuses, but gives Rainbow Bird the gift of fire to keep his friends warm. On the long journey home, Rainbow Bird’s feathers turn black and ashy, demonstrating the sacrifice he made to keep the humans warm.
As students read, have them take notes on Rainbow Birds’ actions in the story. They can use their notes to answer this reading assessment question, “How do the actions of Rainbow Bird contribute to the theme of the story?”
“The Sun, Moon, and Stars: A Traditional Navajo Story” retold by Donna Hennes (4th Grade)
This traditional Navajo story begins with the First People who wish for more daylight. They work together to create the sun, moon, and stars that would bring light to the world day and night.
Build students’ reading comprehension by encouraging them to make text-to-self connections with Discussion Question 2, “Why do you think different groups of people, or cultures, have different stories about the world? How do these stories reflect the values and customs of the culture?”
“Salmon Boy, A Haida Story” by Robert San Souci (5th Grade)
After a Haida boy shows lack of gratitude for the salmon he consumes, the fish begin to deplete. While swimming with his friends, the boy faints from hunger and drowns in the water. The salmon save the boy before they transform into humans and teach him their language, songs, and dances. Grateful, the boy returns to his village and shows his people what the Salmon People taught him.
Before students read the text, have them take notes on how the boy changes from the beginning to the end of the story. They can use their notes to answer the following reading assessment question, “How does the boy change from the beginning to the end of the story?”
“The Great Woman at the Bottom of the Sea” by Kyra Teis (5th Grade)
In this Native American story, the narrator dreams that Sedna, the spirit of the Intuit people, will take away the animals and send storms to the village. The narrator decides to seek out Sedna to apologize for the people’s wrongdoings and set things right.
Present the Related Media video “Intuit Culture in Greenland” to show students some aspects of Inuit culture. Ask students, “What makes up a culture? How does an area's landscape and climate contribute to the culture of the people? Which of these cultural components were visible in ‘The Great Woman at the Bottom of the Sea’ and the video?”
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