Cultural Studies Unit: Native American Literature and Culture

Unit Overview
The main objectives of this four-week unit are to explore Native American culture and its roots, and the issues faced by Native Americans as a result of discrimination throughout American history. As the first inhabitants of the territory of the United States, Native Americans have deep cultural ties to their native lands. These lands have historically been taken from them, and Native Americans have been displaced and have had their culture undermined. To understand the effects on Native Americans that the undermining of their culture has had, Native American traditions and viewpoints need to be examined in combination with contemporary Native American culture and experiences. The study of Native American culture and its current state in the United States is pertinent to cultural studies curriculum as it requires an examination of topics including poverty, alcoholism and drug use, violence, and racial discrimination, as well as how these issues fit into a specific culture. Native American literature is underrepresented in secondary education curriculums, despite there being excellent examples of writing and story-telling within the genre. This underrepresentation is indicative of the neglect of Native American culture and influence in the traditional teaching of American history and literature. This unit is designed for 11th and 12th graders, but could be taught in 9th and 10th grade classrooms as well. Some of the subject matter discussed is quite adult, but the approach towards this subject matter could easily be adapted to various grade levels.

LoneRangerTonto.jpgThe primary text of this unit will be Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This collection of short stories provides commentary on contemporary Native American life on a reservation in Spokane, Washington, as well as interactions and experiences outside of the reservation. Alexie beautifully ties into his book issues and ideas that young people in American can relate to. The stories included in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven are all, to a degree, interrelated, as they weave together themes of spirituality, love and hate, alcoholism, tradition, and resilience, and the stories convey how these themes correlate with Native American culture and history. Much like Native American story-telling, the short stories in this text are highly metaphorical and often surreal, giving students an opportunity to understand Native American story-telling and its importance to the culture. The text is controversial and thought-provoking, as alcohol abuse plays a major role in character development and the plots of many of the short-stories. There is also an instance in one of the stories in which a group of the Native American boys take psychedelic mushrooms and proceed to have disturbing visions of Native American history. Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of the book is the idea shared in one of the stories of an alternative American reality in which all whites have died and Native Americans are the predominant people of the country.
Students will complete their reading of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven within readings groups. Members will be given roles with specific tasks within their groups, and students will rotate through these roles. Literature circles allow students to have active discussions about the text and engage in social learning.

To introduce this unit, I will have students read actual Native American legends. Students will choose a legend from the following site: This site offers legends from the various tribes existing within the United States and North America, and is very extensive. As I teach the primary text for the unit, I will acknowledge and incorporate themes and story-telling styles from Native American legends that are seen in Alexie’s work.

Another text that shares traditional Native American ideas and values is Native American Wisdom, edited by Louise Mengelkoch and Kent Nerburn.
native american wisdom.jpgThis text is a collection of quotes from famous figures such as Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, and Red Cloud, taken from orations, live recordings, and other first-person observations.

The following website will also be utilized: This is the official site of the Spokane Tribe, which is the tribe Sherman Alexie belongs to. By incorporating research of the Spokane Tribe, a stronger connection between the messages within Alexie’s work and their significance to a specific culture can be made by students, allowing these messages to be conveyed more clearly.

To provide more background on Sherman Alexie, but through a non-textual medium, a recording of an interview Alexie took part in on National Public Radio will be included in the Unit Plan. In the interview Alexie shares his thoughts on writing, life on a reservation, and the culture of American Indians. The interview is found at
A textual resource that provides background knowledge on the perspectives and motives of not only Sherman Alexie, but many other ative American authors and poets, is Laura Coltelli's Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. This is an interesting and excellent text, as it shows the congruent as well as different themes behind the motives and perspectives of a large collection of American Indian writers.

FlightNovel.jpgExcerpts from other texts written by Alexie will be used to supplement The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. To look more in depth at issues of violence within contemporary Native American culture, the class will examine passages from Alexie’s novel, Flight. Flight follows a 15-year old American Indian orphan boy who comes from a history of abuse. The story’s protagonist, “Zits”, is killed while committing a serious violent act. Following Alexie’s surreal writing style, Zits is suddenly transported back into various periods of American history and must confront violence involving Native Americans in many forms.

Beyond works of literature, factual and journalistic pieces will be incorporated into the unit plan. One of these factual pieces will be a National Geographic article published in 2012 titled “Vanishing Voices”, which discusses native languages that are quickly dying out, and includes powerful photography. This article is found at Not all of the languages discussed in this article are Native American, which provides a global perspective of native cultures and how they are diminishing. As we examine this article, I will ask students to consider the importance of language to the survival of a culture.
To understand how Native American culture fits into its surrounding, non-native culture, I will show a clip from the documentary film Reel Injun, directed by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, which traces the evolution cinema’s depiction of native people from the silent film era to today. Reel Injun was awarded the Peabody Award and provides useful insight into the role and depiction of Native Americans within popular culture.


Throughout the unit, students will be answering questions and engaging in discussion on the regular interactive class blog found on Weekly blog assignments will be given. Students are required to complete two posts a week and two responses to their classmates.

Unit Structure:

Days 1-4: Introduce unit topic by presenting traditional Native American texts and discussing Native American history.
Days 5-7: Discuss structure of Native American writing and the purpose of this structure, and introduce problems Native Americans face in contemporary Native American culture/society as well as the roots of these problems.
Days 8-11: Introduce primary text and begin reading within literature circles, introduce final project, explore background knowledge already discussed in prior knowledge, and explore background and perspective of Sherman Alexie.
Days 12-14: View segment of Reel Injun and further explore Native Americans within contemporary American culture and themes of Alcoholism and Violence, examine excerpts from Alexie's Flight.
Days 15-17: provide class time for students to research and work on final projects, discuss the experiences of Native cultures in other parts of the world, examine National Geographic article titled Vanishing Languages and explore the role and importance of language within a culture.
Days 18-20: Wrap up reading of primary text, engage in discussion regarding final thoughts and comprehension of primary text, have students present their final projects.

Final Project: Tribe Research and Creative Presentation
Objective: Students will understand the core values and ideas specific to a designated Native American tribe, and will gain this understanding through the completion of online research. Students will demonstrate this understanding through the completion of a creative project which they will present to the class.
Students must research a specific tribe, tracing its roots using resources I will provide as well as resources they have chosen. Students will write a brief history of the tribe, outlining important events and ideas, and must specifically focus on how themes such as alcoholism and violence, which are found in Alexie's literature Students then have the option of depicting an important event or conveying essential values and ideas through a medium that is essentially entirely up to them, as long as they gain teacher approval. Options include a collection of poems, a short story, a short film in either dramatic or documentary format, a collection of art work, a photography collection, or a song/collection of songs. However, I encourage students to complete this project using whatever creative avenue they are interested in as long as I approve. Students may work individually, or in groups of up to three people.
Students will present their projects to the class, and will complete a reflection assignment regarding their projects.
Did the student complete accurate and thorough research? /15
Is the written research completed without grammar and punctuation errors? /10
Did the student exhibit a solid understanding of the important elements of their chosen tribe? /10
Did the student produce a creative project? /10
Did the student complete an honest reflection of his/her project? /5


Lesson: Native Culture in the Media
-objective: students will examine the portrayal of Native Americans in film and television and will consider negative and positive elements of this portrayal.
Materials and Resources: Clip from Reel Injun,Internet Access
Procedures and Activities: To open class, I will ask students what thoughts they have on the portrayal of Native Americans in the media, and if they can think of any examples of Native Americans being portrayed in film and television. After discussion, students will watch a clip from the documentary film “Reel Injun”.
Following the clip, students will be given access to computers and instructed to research Native American characters in film and television. Students must determine if the characters and roles they found embody any of the themes we have been discussing through the study of Alexie’s work and Native American legends, and if they are an accurate and positive depiction of Native Americans.
Students will write a short explanation of their findings and their thoughts regarding the depiction of Native Americans seen in the role/character they researched. Students will also share what they feel the significance of a culture’s portrayal in mainstream media is. Students will share their findings and thoughts to the class with the class’s desks structured in a circle.
Discussion Participation: /10
Written Response and Presentation: /10

Lesson: Making Connections to Themes
Objective: Students will identify themes within a text, and will connect one of these themes to their own lives.
Materials and Resources: Copies of Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Procedures and Activities: From one of the short stories we have completed in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, students identify one of the following themes: Alcoholism, Love and Hate, Tradition, or Resilience. Identify how Alexie expresses this theme, and how it is tied to Native American culture.
Students will write standard prose, a poem, or a short story about one of these themes as it is related to your own life, and the culture in which you live.
Analysis of the text:
Does the student exhibit an understanding of the themes within the text? /5
Is the student’s analysis of a theme within the text well written, free of grammar and punctuation errors? /5

Connection to student:
Does the student attempt to draw a meaningful connection between the text and his or her life? /5
Is the student’s connection piece well-written, without punctuation and grammar errors? /5

Fulfillment of Common Core State Standards:


Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment.


Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.


Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.


Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.


Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text