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No Playing Indian at Thanksgiving


In response to the ongoing debate in my daughter's school district about whether it is appropriate to make Native American costumes and re-enact what is generally known as the First Thanksgiving, I decided to do some research on what is at the root of those who object to these traditions. (For more information on this debate, see my article "The Claremont Thanksgiving Debate," linked below.)

Here's what I learned:

-- What we know about Thanksgiving is largely wrong. I'm not enough of a scholar to have yet unearthed "the truth" of the early settler's relationship with the natives, but clearly it wasn't pretty. Actually, in my limited study, the repeated reference I found to early Thanksgiving feasts were feasts held by the colonists to celebrate a particularly successful slaughter of Natives. There were, apparently, many of these.

-- I remember learning about Squanto and how he lived with colonists and taught them to grow corn. Apparently (and yes, this is very simplified), this happened only after the colonists killed off his entire tribe and he didn't really have a choice. Not quite the story of friendship and cooperation I learned.

-- The images we have in our heads of Native Americans in feathered headdresses and fringed vests isn't exactly their everyday wear or what they would wear to a meal. It would be like showing up to a friend's dinner party in your wedding dress, or a Catholic priest's robes.

-- The 10 Little Indians song I remember as a child, which counts up 1 to 10 and then counts back down 10-1 (little Indian) isn't exactly the harmless ditty I remember. In fact, I didn't even remember there was a second verse. There are many who believe that the countdown part of the song represents killing, or at least the disappearing, of Natives.

Here's what I decided:

-- Even if there was a meal somewhere in there where natives sat and ate with settlers, those settlers then, figuratively stabbed them in the back on the way out the door (or at least pretty quickly thereafter). I'm not sure this is a meal we should re-enact with our kids.

-- The reason we think these things, and have so much trouble letting go of them is because we learned them as children. This is all the more reason why it's important to stop the cycle. If we can't teach the First Thanksgiving as an example of American mythology rather than American history to our youngest children in a way the majority of parents would consider age-appropriate, then we should wait until they are old enough to introduce this concept at all. I'm not sure I'm ready for my Kindergartner to learn about genocide in school, and the story is somewhat disingenuous and incomplete without it, so my vote is to wait a bit. Instead early education should and focus on the *current* meanings and cultural celebration of Thanksgiving – family, community, giving and gratitude – with the historical aspect removed.

-- The only ones who get to decide if something is offensive are the ones being depicted. This isn't PC run amok. It's just common sense. Don't think that construction paper Native American costumes are offensive? Maybe that's because you aren't Native American. If a group comes to us and tells us something we are doing is offending them, especially at an institution of learning, "lighten up" is not an appropriate or particularly productive response.

-- Young children take school lessons as truth. If kids make a construction paper vest and headdress and are told they are dressing as Native Americans, they believe us. If kids are told that relations between Native Americans and colonists were friendly and cooperative (without the rest of the story), they believe us. While we as adults may understand these costumes or stories are incomplete or representative, kids do not. I'm not saying we should be creating authentic clothing or re-enacting bloody wars. My point is that since we can't and don't, then we shouldn't continue teaching the myth as truth.

As a result of all this, in my opinion, dressing as and "playing Indian" in school, certainly as a school sanctioned (taught!) activity is inappropriate. Not only is there no *one* native culture that can be emulated, but there is simply no other curriculum that allows or permits this sort of behavior. Would we ever send Kindergartners to school dressed as black field hands to learn about slavery? And if we did, would we do it with construction paper hats and clothing? Would we ever dress kids up as German Nazis (in lederhosen?) and Jews (in prayer shawls and curls?) to learn about the Holocaust? And if we did, would we call parents who objected "oversensitive?" Would we then stage a dinner party with these kids dressed as Germans and Jews set before World War II as an example of how these two groups once ate and lived together so nicely, and ignoring what happened next? It's absurd to even suggest it.

There seems to be a strong objection to relating these sorts of examples to what we portray at Thanksgiving, but I don't find it at all farfetched. And for those who do, might that not be the proof in the Thanksgiving pudding of just how little respect is given to Native Americans in our culture and in historical exploration, that we think that it somehow doesn't merit the same level of concern as other alarming examples I have given above.

If you teach Thanksgiving, or if your child is participating in traditions like these, think hard about what your child(ren) are really learning. Imagine if you lived in a country where the entire nation took the day off to re-enact and celebrate the beginnings of your people's persecution.

I'm not suggesting that we eliminate the Thanksgiving holiday. A day to celebrate the bounty of the Earth and visit gratitude in our lives is lovely. I wish there were more holidays meant to take time out to sit down together at the family table. And in reality, that is what most of the country is doing on the 4th Thursday in November. It is in *schools* that we focus on the First Thanksgiving myth.

When scientists decided that Pluto was no longer a planet, and that our solar system has now only 8 bodies we will define as such (a move which seemed to me, a non-astronomer, as arbitrary, unnecessary and a tad ridiculous), all teachers were required to make that shift immediately. Textbooks which contain that information are described to children as wrong and out of date. Models and dioramas of the solar system must leave Pluto off. Over time, children's books that contain Pluto will be removed and replaced. When I hear kids recite the names of the planets, I feel a void at the end where the list ends too early. But I am *not* an astronomer, and I do *not* get to decide. My nostalgia for Pluto is not enough reason to supersede this decision. When I joked with a teacher at our school that her omission of Pluto from the classroom ceiling made me sad, she said that's just the way it is now.

If historians and Native American scholars tell us that the First Thanksgiving didn't really happen and that Native Americans didn't act and dress the way we think, how is it possible that we are not making this change? If you are a teacher, consider eliminating "playing Indian" at Thanksgiving from your classroom activities. If your state curriculum requires it, explore how you might meet your requirements with a eye towards authenticity and accuracy. If your child is doing these activities at school, raise these important questions with your teachers, principals and districts.

Personally, I mourn the myth, because it's a really lovely one, a light in the darkness that follows. But mostly, I'm appalled that I just learned at 36 how inaccurate these stories, which I learned as facts, really are. Let's ask better for our children… after all isn't that the real American dream?

Looking for books to replace the stories of the First Thanksgiving? Try these:



(Find my full review of "Thanksgiving is for Giving Thanks" on the Amazon product page.)
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The Claremont Thanksgiving Debate
A Native American's Take on Children's Thanksgiving Activities -- Excellent
Teaching Kids the Wonderful Diversity of American Indians
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Content copyright © 2013 by Nicki Heskin. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Nicki Heskin. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Nicki Heskin for details.

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