Recasting Thanksgiving Lessons

Nov 20 2017
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Recasting Thanksgiving Lessons

By: Hannah Herner

What happens when Native Americans are absent from elementary Thanksgiving education?


In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, teachers around the United States are lesson planning with celebrations of the holiday in mind. Through plays and classroom reenactments, children are instructed to dress the part — as Pilgrims or Native Americans — to act out the first Thanksgiving feast. 

But for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving has a different meaning and history — a fact that is not traditionally covered in the American elementary curriculum. 

Albert Bender, a Cherokee Indian and the coordinator for the American Indian Coalition in Nashville, says he will not celebrate Thanksgiving on Nov. 23.   

“It’s the view of  all, if not the vast majority, of Native American people that Thanksgiving is looked upon as a day of mourning,” Bender says. The proverbial view of Thanksgiving is the Western-centric teaching, but for many Native Americans, it’s proof that much of their culture has been lost, forgotten or eliminated in its wake. “The Pilgrims didn’t sit down and break bread with the Indians, the Pilgrims killed the Indians,” Bender continues.

Since 1970, a group of Native Americans have assembled in Plymouth, Mass., on the third Thursday in November to observe the National Day of Mourning. On this day,  according to the United American Indians of New England, those who gather remember the massacre and driving out of their ancestors from native lands and gather to fight against continued racism. 

Amy Palmeri, assistant professor of the practice in elementary education at Vanderbilt University, says she challenges her students to tell a more complex story when teaching young children about any historical event, including Thanksgiving. 

“I try to talk to them about the stories we tell in history and how those stories — given the nature of the social studies curriculum in American schools — usually tell a positive story about us as Americans,” Palmeri says. 

The Tennessee State Board of Education social studies standards, which were adopted in 2013, only specifically require curriculum on Thanksgiving at the kindergarten and first grade levels. The kindergarten curriculum asks students to participate in research projects to “identify and describe the events or people celebrated” in a list of holidays that includes Thanksgiving. First graders are asked to use informational text to describe the importance of celebrating a list of holidays, including Thanksgiving. The rest is up to teacher interpretation. 

For Bender, requiring children dress as Native Americans is insensitive. 

“It’s cultural appropriation, and it’s also insulting,” he says. “When you have kids dressing up in so-called Native American attire — attire that isn’t really even Native American — and the kids don’t know what it means, it’s very insulting to Indian people. It’s like making fun of someone.”

Bender suggests developing relationships with Native Americans, attending pow-wows in the area and reading books on American Indian culture and history written by Native American authors to get a better understanding of his culture. 

Palmeri says that while it is important to have strong visuals for kids, dressing up in costume is not the only way to do it. “If you were assigned to be a Native American, you made a sort of feather headdress, and maybe put paint on your face, further reinforcing rather stereotypical, or in the best case scenario, over generalizable images of what Native Americans looked like,” she says.  

She suggests using paintings, artwork and other visuals because while some of those same over-generalizations might be part of those pictures, teachers and students can analyze the historical value and avoid cultural appropriation. While detailing the violent history of colonists and Native American relations is not appropriate for first-graders, Palmeri says it’s important not to shy away from conveying conflict, but simply to do so in a way that is age appropriate.

“In the case of Thanksgiving, there are plenty of opportunities to talk about how these two groups of people came together, and they didn’t really understand each other and that led to disagreements and misunderstandings and conflicts,” she says. “There are ways to get children to realize that things were not easy without showing the other side of the story as the completely gory, awful, horrific experience,” she says. 

Bender says he has noticed differences between his own education and his now 23-year-old son’s with regards to Native American representation, but he still believes the group is underrepresented. 

Palmeri says in her years as an educator she’s seen a growth in expectations on teachers and society to be more aware of the sides of storied historical events. 

“With young kids I think that the change has been that there’s this acknowledgement that there’s this traditional story we tell, and that story was told without much critical thought on the part of the teacher and certainly not the student,” she says. 


For Bender, he's proof that there’s more than one story worth sharing.  


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