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An Indigenous mom explains why ‘Native American name’ projects at school are harmful

“These teachers are still giving these assignments that trivialize and denigrate our actual names and our actual ceremonies.”
@debreese via Twitter

Some American schools still ask children to pick a "Native American name" as a part of their classwork, and Indigenous parents are sharing why this common practice is so problematic and harmful to Native American communities.

Debbie Reese, a member of the Nambé Pueblo nation (in what is currently called the state of New Mexico) and whose Tewa name is P’oesay P’oekwîn, consistently hears about a slew of "Native American naming project" assignments from upset parents living across the country.

"These things are sent to me year after year," Reese, 63, who founded American Indians in Children's Literature to provide critical analysis of Indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, told TODAY Parents.

"Every year you think: 'Oh, we're still doing the same kind of assignments," she said. "These teachers are still giving these assignments that trivialize and denigrate our actual names and our actual ceremonies."

@debreese via Twitter

On Monday, Nov. 7, Reese tweeted out such an assignment from an unnamed school.

"As part of our study of the Native Americans and the first Thanksgiving, your child will need your help with a special project," the assignment reads. "Together with your child, please think of a Native American name that your child will use at school throughout our feather project."

The assignment goes on to add that the child's "Native American name" should reflect their personality, special talent or interests, followed by examples like "Bright Smile," "Running Deer" and "Princess Dancing Flower."

Parents are then asked to attach a slip containing the child's "Native American name" and why it was chosen, so the teacher can then write their name on the "child's headband for our feather board during our naming ceremony next week."

"Every year, Native parents share photos of these 'naming' projects they are asked to do," Reese tweeted. "Teachers: stop doing this. It trivializes something of tremendous significance to native families and communities. It isn't cute. It isn't educational. IT IS WRONG."

Reese shared that a few years ago, her cousin's child came home with a similar assignment — he was prompted to "choose a Native American name," even though he had a Tewa name.

"We have names that come to us through ceremony and through some kind of naming that took place without our tribal communities," Reese said. "That's part of why these things are so ridiculous — we already have Native names."

There are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States, according to the U.S. government. To clump all of those different Nations together under the singular banner of "Native American," Reese said, is to treat Indigenous communities as a monolith when they are anything but.

"That's over 500 different communities and histories and ways of naming," she added. "American society wants to shrink all of that in order to make one 'Native American way of naming' and that just does not exist because of the diversity of who we are."

Reese said she doesn't feel comfortable sharing more about the details and significance of naming ceremonies — and for good reason, she said.

"People want to replicate Native ceremonies," she explained. "That's what this teacher is trying to do. So if we share that information, then somebody is going to turn it into an 'activity' — somebody is going to appropriate something that has tremendous significance and cultural meaning to us."

Instead of issuing what Reese said are problematic assignments, she encourages teachers to use age-appropriate literature about Indigenous communities written by Native American authors. She also encourages teachers and other adults to discuss Indigenous peoples in the present and not just the past.

When you think about us as people of the present day with cultures that are unique to us and our Tribal Nations, it’s hard to do those assignments.

Debbie Reese

"Use these books by Native writers," Reese explained. "Instead of doing that activity, read 'Forever Cousins' and talk about the story of Native kids growing up in urban areas. Read 'Sharice's Big Voice,' a book about a Native woman and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation serving in Congress."

"When you think about us as people of the present day with cultures that are unique to us and our Tribal Nations, it's hard to do those assignments," Reese added. "If you know about who are are, then either your conscience is going to bother you or you're just going to stop doing it and instead make better choices that are educational, not entertainment."

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