Teaching Kids About Thanksgiving

November is National Native American Heritage Month! I wish I could say I knew this before last Thursday, but a recent incident led me to this realization which I want to discuss further here. I thought hard about whether I would address this topic on my blog, but ultimately I felt a duty to address it even if it received with criticism.

Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on Native Americans studies. I spent about one week on a Navajo reservation in college for a service immersion trip with my Jesuit university. We prepared for one full year before the trip, learning about Navajo culture before entering their land, working with them, and learning about their customs. That experience, among many others, really shaped why I am so hyper-aware of cultural issues.

Last week, my daughter came come home from school with a notice that her kindergarten class would be putting on their annual Thanksgiving play. We were asked to send our child to school the day of the play dressed according to their assigned character. My daughter was assigned the role of “Native American woman,” with a suggestion that girls wear their hair in braids and to come wearing brown and tan clothing for their costume.

My husband saw the notice before I did, and his immediate reaction was, “Nope.” When I first saw it, I did not even get to the bottom where my child had already been assigned a role before I felt uncomfortable at best and scathing anger at worst. Why?

1. We now know history better. As a child, I definitely learned the “old” story of Thanksgiving, but I never participated in nor witnessed this kind of play (aside from what I saw on television). Now, however, we know that the origin story of Thanksgiving was not the peaceful coming together of English settlers and Native Americans. We know the history of genocide and warfare that the settlers waged on the Native Americans. I understand that talking about genocide with a kindergartner is not everyone’s idea of fun, nor am I suggesting we have to. (By the way, how privileged our kids are that they do not have first-hand experience of genocide and warfare at their age, in contrast to so many children around the world). Still, we should be able to teach Thanksgiving with more honesty than what this play provides.

2. Cultural appropriation is not acceptable. I remember having to explain to someone in college that her idea to dress up in Indian clothes for Halloween was not the great idea she thought it was. A person or group’s cultural clothing is not meant to be paraded around for entertainment or as a “costume” to look cool. Our cultural clothing has special significance and meaning which deserves respect and an effort by the wearer to understand it. Therefore, having our kids wear Native American “costumes,” create character names to sound like Native American names (which hold sacred meaning), or wear construction paper feathers (which also hold deep meaning for Native Americans and is something they must earn) distill the cultural aspects of traditional dress and naming in order in order to achieve entertainment value.

3. The costumes are stereotyping. The flier literally suggests that girls wear their hair in braids if they are assigned to be Native American. Also, the Native American students are asked to wear brown and tan (very Pocahantas-esque). A simple google search will reveal that Native Americans wear a bright array of colors in their clothes. Why do the people creating these plays require otherwise? This just reminds me of being a called “dot head” as a kid because that’s what people decided bindis looked like. Fast forward a few decades when cultural stereotyping swings to the opposite extreme of cultural appropriation with everyone loving bindis, henna tattoos, Indian weddings and clothes without any better understanding of these traditions or customs.

4. The play holds no educational value. Sure, not all art is meant to be educational. However, when children are involved, I think we need to be more aware of the messages we send to them about people from different cultures. Moreover, this play is teaching an inaccurate representation of history. In my opinion, if it is both false and offensive, why do the play?

5. My child was assigned a role without my prior consent. Participation should be optional, if the play is done at all.

6. My non-white child was assigned to be a non-white character (out of 4 total characters, one who is white, one who is a turkey, and one who is popcorn). Do I really need to explain this?

7. Thanksgiving can be a time of stress and pain for Native Americans because of how they are portrayed and history of violence and marginalization they have experienced.

My discussion with my husband started with our immediate agreement that our daughter would not participate in the play. I explained to her that she cannot participate because I don’t think the play is ok, but I did not delve into greater details yet. In times like this, finding a good children’s book usually helps me to help her understand something I need to get across. This link provides seven childrens’ books written from the Native American perspective.

We then had to decide how to address our concerns with the school. As of right now, I am happy to state that I will have the opportunity to discuss my concerns with the principal while keeping my expectations for change low. Hopefully I am wrong and the school will decide to change course, or at least cancel the play, but from an ethical standpoint, I feel obligated to discuss how this play can cause more harm than good.

Some alternative ideas include:

– learning about the different types of clothing worn by different Native American tribes
– understanding what the different feather types represent
– learning about prominent Native American figures in history
– inviting members of the local Native American community to visit the school and speak to the students
– activities focused on giving thanks (gratitude) and service to others
– reading culturally appropriate children’s books about Native Americans and/or Thanksgiving
– discussing traditional foods that Native Americans prepare
– do what my daughter’s old school did and host an annual International Day to celebrate diverse cultures
– and so many other options!

Again, I don’t know everything about this topic, and I know that I have much more to learn. As the stoics teach, it is ok to appear “stupid” about a topic as long as we are striving to learn more and be better. Below are a few other links I found helpful while reading more about this topic, and I hope you will find them helpful too.

‘I Was Teaching a Lot of Misconceptions.’ The Way American Kids Are Learning About the ‘First Thanksgiving’ Is Changing (TIME Magazine)

Teaching Thanksgiving in a Socially Responsible Way

An Authentic Look at Thanksgiving (pbs.org)

Thanksgiving: Practicing Gratitude and Honoring the Real Story (pbskids.org)

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