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.