An age-appropriate guide to using Thanksgiving to talk about Native American history

November 23 |
Photo by Mark Mrwizard, used under Creative Commons license.

Between ages six and eleven, I wore the same Halloween costume every year. It was a pure suede, fringed "Indian Princess" dress with matching leather moccasins. I wore my dark brown hair braided in pigtails, and my family painted my face with my mom's brown eye shadow. A few weeks later, my elementary school would hold its Thanksgiving celebration, where the kids were invited to dress as Pilgrims or Native Americans. There was no way I was going to put on a paper-bag Pilgrim hat when I had my beloved hide dress at home.

When I see pictures of those celebrations now, I have several reactions. The first is "Holy cow, I was a Southern white girl in brown face: these photos must be destroyed." The second thought is this overwhelming nostalgia for a time when wearing a brown suede dress transformed me into something magical, something about which I only knew beautiful things. Finally, I wonder how I can now balance that childhood romanticism with the complex history surrounding the Thanksgiving story, as I explain Thanksgiving traditions to my children.

Thanksgiving is the closest holiday many American children will have to one recognizing Native America. Some of us may celebrate Native Americans' Day in lieu of Columbus Day, but in public school, media, and pop culture, the story of Pilgrims and Indians holding hands around a turkey is still the official narrative of Native/Colonial interactions. In this story, members of the Wampanoag tribe gave their harvest purely from the noble goodness of their hearts to Pilgrims accepting in a spirit of brotherhood and trust, and it was this cooperation which helped see the Pilgrims through the winter. Columbus Day and Thanksgiving existing only a few weeks from each other, those two simplified stories were allowed to suffice for the Native side of American History while the class moved on to declarations and tea parties.

I can understand why parents might omit parts of Thanksgiving history during the holidays. In my childhood home of Florida, your chances of knowing a Native American person are slim; Native mascots greatly outnumbered Native people in my life. Isolated like that, the Thanksgiving story seemed a bit like Santa: warm and fuzzy and not hurting anyone. However, themes of the disparity between the Thanksgiving story and the greater swath of Native American history are applicable to a variety of issues kids will have to wrap their heads around, like why both positive and negative stereotypes are harmful, or how romanticism can blind reality, or that history is written by the victors. More importantly to me, though, is that avoiding the topic compromises my best chances to give my kids a balanced perspective of American History before they're inundated with the traditional stories.

I admit that our family has more invested in teaching a realistic understanding of Native and Colonial history. We live in New Mexico, with one of the highest populations of Native Americans. My husband works for AISES, a non-profit organization aiding Native Americans pursuing careers in scientific fields, (and with whom this post is in no way affiliated). He also has family in Zia Pueblo. At the same time, he comes from a family of "New Mexicans" — a family which can trace their roots far back into the Spanish Colonial Southwest. I, on the other hand, grew up on the East Coast, visiting Colonial cities with native-named landmarks named without ever knowing a native person. Tiger Lily and James Fennimore Cooper filled in the gaps. One set of my grandparents lived in parts of the country dotted with the remnants of English Colonialism while the other half lived in Brazil with the remnants of Portuguese Colonialism. And then there are our kids: two beige boys with a finger in every melting pot.

In our home, like so many other American homes, Thanksgiving is when we take time to enumerate the brightest moments of that year.

Like so many other American families, we don't claim a direct connection to Plymouth Rock, yet we are intertwined with the tropes of the Thanksgiving story. In our home, like so many other American homes, Thanksgiving is when we take time to enumerate the brightest moments of that year. Often, those illuminated moments are intertwined with difficult, dark times. They are inseparable: we are thankful for our home knowing that others suffer without one. We are thankful for our youngest son in light of the days he spent recovering from heart surgery. We are thankful for our marriage in light of the fact that we are two people toiling through a relationship's struggles. We celebrate Thanksgiving in acknowledgment of its symbols of hope, thankfulness, and togetherness in light of the difficult history from which it springs.

My husband and I are fans of those Age Appropriate Truths, so here is a simple outline of how we have discussed, and plan to discuss, the Thanksgiving history with our boys.

Birth – five years: Explaining Native America and Arrival of Europeans

This is an age for keeping it honest but simple. We've talked about how people lived here long before Europeans came over and how strange each group found the other. Maps, books, and other visuals are helpful here. We have introduced the idea that Europeans and Native Americans did not always get along, and how the Native people especially lost a lot of family in this time. The Thanksgiving-specific idea is that even though these people did not always get along, Thanksgiving was a day when they shared food, helped each other, and took time to be thankful.

Grade School: Clearing up the basics

This is a time where it gets easier for kids to understand time frames and distances. An idea for understanding relative concepts is to bring a map if you're traveling for Thanksgiving, and let them draw how far they have gone. You can talk about how long this would have taken walking, or on horseback.

Closer to middle school, kids will be able understand other relative ideas, like numbers of people dying from illness, numbers of settlers versus Natives, or the spread of Native American tribes across America versus the isolation of settlements. There are many of these relative concepts which can help kids understand the mechanics of early American History.

This is a good time to keep the perspective balanced: some settlers had compassion and wanted to help Native people, and not all Native people were like Squanto and Pocahontas, either.

Middle School: Let's talk about stereotypes and romanticism

Now is a good time to start to focus on stereotypes. Let them list all the things that come to mind about Pilgrims and Native Americans. Often by the end of elementary school, kids know that Native people were displaced and killed by settlers. Many stereotypes will reflect that dichotomy with little wiggle room for either side. This is a good time to keep the perspective balanced: some settlers had compassion and wanted to help Native people, and not all Native people were like Squanto and Pocahontas, either. In fact, one important idea is that just like your child has different ideas and likes than his friends, people at that point in history had different ideas from their friends. Is it fair to come to a blanket conclusion about either side of a historical event? As for positive stereotypes, it is easy to flip this back at a child this age: if you have a boy who doesn't like sports, for example, point out that many people assume all boys are skilled, enthusiastic sports players. You might add that adults have to fight their own assumptions and try to name some of your own.

High school

Here come the big guns! Stereotypes can now be combated with bigger concepts. Did you know that just as the French and English allied with tribes against each other, a fascinating, complex political history existed between those tribes which allied with the French or English? Did you know that while one Spanish explorer cut off appendages of Natives who dared trespass him, another lived amongst Native people who both saved and enslaved him.

You can talk about who writes the history books in your child's class, and offer other resources. Your child can read a history book's section on a certain topic and then read parts of an actual text from that time. Where does the history writer differ from a voice of the times? What are the gerneralities? Why are there so few accounts from Native Americans in history classes?

Ultimately, the historical accounts behind Thanksgiving tropes are heart-wrenching, validating, invalidating, and fascinating. They add weight to the Thanksgiving story: like early America, the world our kids are growing up in contains a web of competition, cooperation, alienation, friendship and outright betrayal. Let's dig through all of that and show that in contentious times, humans can come together and preserve each other for another season.

  1. I love this!

    Thank you so much for putting this together. I will not only be sharing this with my daughter from here on out, but also with all my friends and family with children of their own.

    Amazing job!

    3 agree
  2. I came upon this post by the blogroll link on a friend's blog, and am SO GLAD because I was just thinking the other day how I need to figure out how to talk about the history of this holiday in an age-appropriate way with my 3.5yr old. So, thank you! This helped a lot, and I'm clipping it to Evernote so I can reference it in the future as my kids get older.

  3. This has been a big conversation between my husband and I regarding many history subjects… reading this made everything click into place. Thank you for providing something that is obviously well thought-out, but still an easy structure to apply to other historical subjects children will be learning about.

  4. Thanks for writing this! Thanksgiving has so many positive elements (family, gratitude, home cooked food, awesome!). But it comes with such a complicated history and context (genocide).
    I wanted to raise a point less as a critique of this post and more as a conversation starter because I'm curious about what the author and other folks' opinion is on an idea I've been kicking around.
    I feel like the guidelines for age-appropriate topics in this article are very much in line with what I've seen in other resources put out by folks in education, etc. for talking with young kids about big historical/social topics and issues. And basically center around introducing a very sanitized version of events early on with more of a focus on lighter topics and introducing heavier topics as kids get older. Intuitively this makes a lot of sense. However, I feel like these suggestions are really different from how people I know who are from racial/religious groups that have faced serious oppression and genocide in their people's history were raised and how those issues were broached in their own families. I've had conversations with jewish friends about how they don't remember the first time they learned about the holocaust, that they just always knew. Same with latino friends whose families have a strong indigenous identity learning about the genocide of indigenous americans. Based on what they've described, it seems similar to the idea that with certain topics like adoption it's best for kids to never remember a time they didn't know. So yeah, I'd love to hear what folks think about this. What benefits/drawbacks do you see to the different approaches? Do you think that the level of information about tragic/upsetting/complicated histories that you give a child is different if it is something that directly affects their identity? To note, none of my friends remember being traumatized by knowing something so intense so young and all say they would raise their children similarly.

    7 agree
    • Hi Rodin,
      I didn't see your comment before I posted below. This is a great point you bring up.

      I mentioned below that I am an Oglala Lakota and so growing up, I was privvy to things the other children weren't when learning about natives in school. For instance, I've always known that my people were forced onto reservations and the children raised in boarding schools and beaten for using anything but English and Christianity. I'm trying to imagine what it would have felt like if I had never known that until I was in high school after i'd learned all about how pilgrims and indians were friends. I'm pretty sure I would have..had a freakout, not unlike someone who loses faith in God or something like that.

      I also think this may have a similar but opposite effect on caucasian children. Maybe I only notice it because I'm not white, but I do hear a lot of caucasian people say, "Well I'm white, and I've done NOTHING to your people, so it seems silly for you to still be upset about this." I'm not saying all white people are devils or whatever, but slavery and native genocide IS part of *some* caucasian people's heritage. It is like they never learned that as a child, so when faced with the truth they find ways to justify not feeling bad about it. To them it's not their history.

      I do feel like people who have persecution in their collective histories have more of a hive mind almost. I've never heard a native american say, "Well I'm native and I've NEVER had any problems with white people, so stop whining." Or a Jewish person say, "Well I'm Jewish and I didn't have any relatives in the Holocaust, so it doesn't affect me."

      So for that reason alone, I think telling your children about the horrible things in your own heritage is important. I think them knowing where they come from and what their ancestors have endured or inflicted on another group is an important way of helping them discover who they are. Like I mentioned below, I meet so many Irish Americans that hate Mexicans and immigrants and I have to wonder if they are aware they were once very hated in this country and if that knowledge would change the way they viewed immigrants.

      I can only comment from my point of view as a Native woman and don't pretend to assume all people are woefully ignorant of their pasts.

      13 agree
      • Disclaimer: I am part oppressor, part oppressed. And within those identities each side has been both oppressor and oppressed. I definitely feel like I need to use my from-the-margins-multi-racial-street-cred here because I disagree portions of this comment.
        I think it is important to remember that "whiteness" and "white people" are very different concepts. It is not fair to assign responsibility to individuals that belong to a conceptual group. I was married to Stockbridge Indian for 7 years so I understand that there is still a systemic oppression of the Native population inthis country, but the oppression is not, for the most part, an oppression by individuals. That is not to say that there are not individuals who engage in racist and oppressive behavior, but you take your average person from, say, my hometown of Los Angeles and they are most likely not engaged in an active and conscious oppression of the native population. It is built into the very core of our society. This is why it is important to be methodical and gentle about introducing the idea of whiteness to children. While there is solidarity in a cultural memory of oppression, a sense of safety in living as a community in the margins, it is quite another thing to hit a kid over the head with "You are a white oppressor and your ancestors were murderers." It may be true, or it may be untrue, but I don't think that kind of "always knowing" creates anything but further racism. I have a very vivid cultural memory of the oppression my people have faced over and over and it is an understanding that I hold dear because it is my history. When I meet someone with whom I share a history I feel a certain kinship for no other reason than that we share a cultural memory of OUR people. I don't, however, search for retribution in the children of the racial majority. Yes, their ancestors may have done some pretty fucked up shit, but I think the point of this article is to illustrate the need to provide information in a meaningful way so that children can grow into socially and culturally aware adults. It is the difference between creating anti-racism and perpetuating a system of racism that cannot help but justify itself. Just a thought…

        1 agrees
        • La, I found your perspective interesting because my husband and I have been talking a lot about what it means to raise our (not yet conceived) children with an identity that contains a history of both oppressed and oppressors.
          However, I don't think teaching white children that they're descended of historic oppressors is a) accusing them of being oppressors or b) perpetuating racism. I think kids can understand the difference between something bad they are doing and something bad a relative of theirs did. I really appreciated Dahlia's comment and thought it was right on that raising kids with a sanitized version of history can actually be really unfair to them because it means they'll be forced to completely reconstruct their understanding of the world and potentially their own identity when given a more accurate picture of events.
          I think the fact that the most egregious oppression today is systemic rather than individually perpetrated actually makes it more important to discuss it with kids because that oppression is harder to see from a place of privilege, and even if they live their lives as good people they are going to inherit a certain degree of privilege resulting from that oppression. I know that this concept makes certain people really uncomfortable because privilege it isn't something that we chose, it's something we were born into. However, Native folks didn't ask to be born into communities that are still feeling the effects of stolen land and genocide, either.
          I really believe that kids are capable of understanding a lot more nuance than we give them credit for. I want to teach my children that sometimes people do bad things and sometimes we benefit from those bad things. That doesn't make us bad people or mean we need to always feel guilty, but it does mean we have a responsibility to the people who were hurt. That means that we need to be allies to native people in the struggles they're fighting today. And seriously, there is a cool learning opportunity for you to explore with your kids: learn about the ongoing struggles of native folks in your area and find out what your family can do to support those fights. For example, if you live in the Southwest like us, you could teach your kids about the inspiring stuff that O'odham (first link) and Dine (second link) activists are doing to defend their lands and cultures:
          http://survivalsolidarity.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/de-occupy-oodham-land/
          http://blackmesais.org/

          5 agree
  5. My Meme is Native American (Cherokee) and explained to me what happened to them at a very young age. We also learned about the Trail of tears and the systematic genocide in school. When we discussed Thanksgiving it was def. Glossed over but because of my prior knowledge I always knew it wasn't as happy go lucky as it was broached. I was also aware of my fathers families troubles (he is 2nd generation Irish) there is a descrimibation you won't learn about in school aka Irish need not apply, Brigid the whore and Patty the drunk etc….. It mde me proud to know where I came from and what my family had faced on both sides. I didn't always absorb it all but over time it all clicked. I appreciate the article but kids don't always need reality glossed over. Today I'm thankful for the strength, tenacity and pig headedness without which I wouldn't be here today (that and potato famine)

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  6. I think the history ideas for dicussion are great, but would like to add as well that these would be great stepping off points to talk about the reality of the still existing forms of discrimination and racism against people of colour in our societies – not assuming you don't do this, just thought useful to point out.

    4 agree
  7. Oglala Lakota of Pine Ridge here.

    Yes, I agree with Meg, Native discrimination and oppression is not something only found in history, but today as well.

    It's important to talk to your kids about true American history EVERYDAY, not just Thanksgiving or Columbus Day. This isn't just about Native assimilation, but also the immigrants of the late 1800s-early 1900s and all the other ugly things American history holds. I see way too many people today hating Mexican immigrants when they are Irish Americans or Italian Americans whose grandfathers came over not too long ago.

    If we can educate our children about the true American story, hopefully we can give them the tools to build a better future for themselves.

    Mitakuye Oyasin, and happy thanksgiving.

    3 agree
  8. My dad's family came over on the Mayflower so it was always interesting/confusing to hear, "So your ancestors had this kick ass feast with the natives and then a couple years later killed them off with small pox infested blankets!" I've always wondered about how different areas of the country teach about Thanksgiving and the genocide of the natives in their school systems. In New Jersey it seemed the bad parts were glossed over but in North Carolina we learned so much about it. I've always wondered if it was because I had great history teachers or if NC included it in the curriculum because of our involvement in things like the Trail of Tears.

  9. Eh, having a conversation about Thanksgiving as if it was a "coming together" feast is false in and of itself. As an educator, we constantly underestimate the ability of children to understand complex relationships. While not every NA was like Squanto, let's face it–the European way was one of destruction with no regard for those who looked different than they did. The groups did not share equal power in the US to presenting it that way skews it even further for children.

  10. How funny that I read this AFTER Thanksgiving and AFTER my 9 year old asked me about the story of Thanksgiving! DOH! I told her we would get out some books to learn more 😉

  11. Great post! We obviously need to work on this as my 5 year old sat down to dinner on Thanksgiving and said, "It's just a dinner?!?" with this incredulous look on his face. ROFL!!! I guess he was expecting something exciting. We of course talked about the First Thanksgiving and what we were thankful for.

  12. First off I'd like to say that teaching my children how to uproach the issue of Native American's and thanksgiving is for me an issue that is personally daunting as a Navajo (just fine with the term Indian) woman. I am very aware of the less than accurate version elementary schools will spread to my children and fearful of it. Especially since I am a woman who doesn't know my own indeginous language thanks to the work of baording schools. I would like to say that I like the overall frame work set forward though I find to be a more sugary version that I'll ever use. That said I wish that people would tell there children that native americans still exist! I grew with children who lived in my neighborhood asking me if I lived in a tipee! A tipee anyone who knows me knows that a laughable concept and secondly it's a shame that these kids had no concept of present day Native Americans (that is a term I hate by the way) and it wasn't their fault. Also teach you children that terms like Indians and Native Americans are blanket terms as much as my refering to all caucasians as Europeans. I am Navajo which is vastly different than if say I had been Oglala Lokota like the sister below me. (nod to the lokota as they are soo pretty) I wish people knew more of that. Teach your children that the term Navajo Boho as used to described fashions is laughable! Also, teach your children about the past and do not be afraid to chow them blood for they will encounter it eventually. those are things I wish non native children had known about me anyway!

    2 agree

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