Updated: Nov 13, 2021
The topic of Thanksgiving looms ominously for many parents. We want, on the one hand, to celebrate gratitude and family, and create pumpkin-flavored traditions with our kids. On the other hand, we’re painfully aware of the shameful truths beneath the happy Pilgrims-and-Indians veneer of the Thanksgiving story we all grew up on.
Do you relate?
For those who do, the main options seem to be: go along with it- at least until your kids are older and/or you manage to suppress your conscientiousness. Or, “be honest” and sit your first grader down for an explanation of genocide.
One option encourages cognitive dissonance and the other creates an association between the topic of indigenous Americans and the feeling of guilt- an association that's more likely to lead to avoidance or co-dependence than genuine curiosity.
I’m happy to say that, as a forever student of indigenous wisdom and a DIY homeschooling mom, I found a much better way when my daughter was little.
How is my way better? Well it turns out, when you approach Thanksgiving with deep respect for the Native Americans, rather than as a colonizer, a lot of other things fall into place, including setting the stage for the eventual revelation that the first Thanksgiving was an end as much as it was a beginning.
If you need a refresher yourself, I just discovered the articles on this page. The first one is a bit grisly (though important for adults to face). The second one, by Chuck Larsen, does an outstanding job at giving authentic, nuanced context to the first Thanksgiving.
And here's an Atlas Obscura interview with Mashpee Wampanoag man, Steven Peters.
Now that you've reacquainted yourself with our history, here are three simple but profound shifts for sharing the Thanksgiving story with kids:
1. Don’t present Thanksgiving as The Beginning
The most troublesome parts of a story often exist between the lines- the subtle things you accept in order to enjoy the rest of the story, without realizing that you've accepted anything at all. In the case of our Thanksgiving story, the subtle implication is a massive one: the pretense that not much had happened in America until the Euros showed up.
This is done in several ways: by positioning Thanksgiving as an origin story, by saying there was 'just forest' here when they arrived ('just a thriving food forest waiting for us to turn it into useful things like parking lots' ; ), or that it was all wilderness.
Most pointedly, it's done by giving a detailed back story to the Pilgrims and little or none to the Wôpanâak (Wampanoag), Abenaki, and Pauquunaukit (Pokanoket) peoples their survival depended on. This doesn't just happen in schools, but in countless articles like this one from the History channel that gives seven paragraphs on the Pilgrims before diving into this detailed history of the Native Americans: "The native inhabitants of the region around Plymouth Colony were the various tribes of the Wampanoag people, who had lived there for some 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived." Then they squeeze Squanto's remarkable life story into the rest of the same paragraph.
Granted, this is an article titled The Pilgrims, but I couldn't find one called The Wampanoag or Squanto.
The bias is clear: there is more worth saying about the Pilgrims than about the First Nations. This is a handy dehumanization trick that's used constantly to this day.
As parents, it's really on us to correct biases our kids pick up, whether they're from school or media. As they get into the higher elementary grades, teaching kids to notice what or who has been left out of a story, or only included in a negative light, is an important aspect of teaching critical thinking. It has to start with the parents, though.
The truth, of course, is that the Pilgrims sailed into a land of rich, varied, cultures with histories that went back many thousands of years. These peoples had an abundant diversity of traditions, languages, sciences and technologies, ceremonies, and myths…. they also had a range of opinions and concerns about these overdressed newcomers.
To reframe this for children, I recommend making November Native American Awareness month. Start a collection of Indigenous myths and legends- I steered clear of anthropological books 'about' certain tribes until my daughter was 10 or so because they suggest that certain people are to be studied. I wanted her awareness to begin in immersion and celebration of the ways of life that thrived here long before any Puritans set foot on this continent.
I have a list of excellent books here. I also recommend just about anything by Byrd Baylor, Joseph Bruchac, and Paul Goble. Your library will hopefully have a good selection and you can try searches like 'native american lot' or 'native legend lot' in the used children's books on ebay to start an indigenous section in your own library.
Here are even more that have become favorites in our home (and the list keeps growing even though my daughter is twelve now!).
Many of these books can be found used on ebay or Amazon, or new at local bookstores, but here are the Amazon links if you choose that route. Books are listed from left to right and top to bottom:
The past is abstract for kids. Faraway places are abstract. Making history real for them is a dance of finding tangible experiences and stories that they can imagine themselves into.
To make it real for your children, it's often useful to forget about New England entirely (unless that's where you live, of course) and start with the First Nations of the land you live on. If you're lucky, you'll be able to find their myths and legends in print, or even better- visit museums, cultural centers or events. Even if it's just one person leading nature walks, go for it! You'll learn so much and be supporting the community as well.
If these resources don't exist, then you can make it an experience of following clues and patching together what you learn. Remember that it all started with the land- the stories, the food and medicine, the clothing and tools. These were all gifts from the land and the land holds the clues to remembering them.
Start with this interactive website to find out whose land you’re on. Once you have that information, see if there's a website where you can learn to say 'thank you' in their language!
2. Tell the story from the Native perspective
Now that your kids have a deeper appreciation for the indigenous experience, tell the story of Thanksgiving from their point of view. The POV of the Wampanoag, Abenaki and Pokanoket.
As a homeschooling parent, I had the luxury of not even mentioning Pilgrims until my daughter was older- and by then, she'd had years of myths from around the continent, was familiar with many native plants and their uses, she'd had the opportunity to learn some local indigenous skills, and more.
In other words, by the time she learned about the Pilgrims, they seemed like the foreigners. Which isn't to say that Native Americans didn't also feel foreign to her, but she didn't immediately associate one party as like and the other as unlike. I consider that a success!
When we did finally dive into the story, it was after years of exposure to local and distant Native American cultures and it was with this excellent book: Squanto’s Journey by the prolific Nulhegan Abenaki writer, Joseph Bruchac.
Around the same time, I also happened upon the illustrated prayer Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message by Chief Jake Swamp of the Mohawk and have incorporated it into our November studies ever since. For children seven and up, this prayer could even be memorized and used to bring an Indigenous voice to your Thanksgiving meal itself.
Most parents, of course, don't get to obsessively curate their kids' education like I did. Or even if they do, they may not have had the opportunity to examine and heal the messaging they absorbed about Native Americans. We can't underestimate how pervasive this is, from disparaging comments in the Little House series (I edited them out as I read) to the fact that a major-league baseball team had a caricature of an Indian as their mascot until just a few years ago.
I think it's safe to assume that whatever your circumstances, every single effort toward celebrating the indigenous perspective at home is important.
Check out the books above, but don't stop there....
3. Keep Going!
Here's a crazy idea: North American children should be learning about indigenous North Americans all year long- not just in November, and not just in relation to Thanksgiving.
Teaching kids that the ancient histories of other countries are more valuable than our own has the same effect as positioning Thanksgiving as the beginning of America: that nothing notable happened here before the white folks arrived.
Granted, the history of Turtle Island- to use a widely accepted pre-Columbian name for North America- is subtler than the kings and conquests that our system favors. Looking around, though, I'd say this domination-bias isn't serving us very well. It's another one we'd do well to correct.
• Give Native stories a permanent place on your bookshelf- even rotate them season to season to make their presence more exciting for the kids.
• Learn something new every month about the people who evolved where you live- learn a new word or recipe or story or just a new native plant or animal.
• Seek out opportunities for traditional cultural opportunities and ways to support these communities.
•If your kids are older, pick a tribe or a region of the country and do a deep dive.
More than anything, talk about these people with your children. Give your kids the gift of seeing that what makes America beautiful isn't the stock market or celebrities or corporations or any political party- it's the land, the rivers and trees, the flowers and creatures and the amazing, diverse cultures who thrived and prospered with these gifts without exploiting any of them. Give your kids the gift of seeing life through indigenous eyes. We have so much more to learn from them than the shame of the destruction we brought.
Each of us faces a deep question: to continue perpetuating the ideals of hierarchy, force and domination that the Europeans smuggled over with them or to put their weight behind different forces: those of community; acceptance of differences; of weighing our current needs against the needs of Nature and of the humans, our descendants, seven generations from now; of constant gratitude. One way was sustainable and thriving for eons, the other way has brought us to the brink of despair.
Both of these options are represented in the Thanksgiving story. They way we approach it reflects not only our personal choice, but the one whose seeds we're planting in the next generation. Let them be the seeds of wisdom.
I want to hear from you!
How do you approach Thanksgiving in your family? Any tips you would add?