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How to Tell the Thanksgiving Story to Kids
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Here’s what many of us learned in school about Thanksgiving: In 1620, the Pilgrims fled religious suppression in Britain on the Mayflower and arrived at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. They struggled to survive the harsh winter conditions, but fortunately, a group of Native Americans showed them how to cultivate the land. The following fall, after a bountiful harvest, the pilgrims organized a celebratory feast and invited their Native American allies to join in as thanks. This was America’s “first Thanksgiving” and lasted for three days, and we’ve been feasting on turkey and pumpkin pie every November since.

And while it’s likely true that this feast did in fact occur, this heartwarming account doesn’t tell the full story. Thanksgiving didn’t actually become a national holiday until the Civil War when it was used as a way to unite the country and—most importantly—this happy tale leaves out what happened to the Native and Indigenous communities over the next few centuries (including genocide, slavery and disease). 

“It’s a myth, just like Santa Claus,” says Karen Gillespie, a child and family therapist who has worked with Native American communities. “Sadly people are more comfortable talking about how they learned that Santa Claus wasn’t real than they are about learning about the media version of Thanksgiving,” she adds. Why? Well, because we’re used to celebrating Thanksgiving and examining this event too closely isn’t exactly cause for celebration. 

But if we don’t speak to younger generations about difficult moments from America’s history, we are perpetuating a narrative in which Native Americans are invisible. And in a year full of difficult conversations, it’s time to talk turkey about, well, more than just turkey. So how can we reframe the Thanksgiving story for kids? Consider these words from sociologist and author James W. Loewen: “The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history, but honest and inclusive history.” With that in mind, here some ways to talk to children about Thanksgiving this year.

Know Your History

Before talking to kids about Thanksgiving, educate yourself, suggests Gillespie. The First Nations Development Institute has compiled a list of essential reading for anyone interested in the Native American experience, and The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is a good resource for different perspectives on Thanksgiving. Gillespie also suggests looking on a map and seeing what tribal lands your family is living on. Once parents have a better understanding of the history, they can decide what to share with their children and when. Not sure how to begin? “A good entryway is asking where the kids are at and their understanding first.”

Check Your Motivations

“It takes fortitude to sit with the discomfort of learning about a full history, but it’s not as uncomfortable as continuing the bias and harm,” says Gillespie. One way to make difficult conversations easier is to have an idea of where you want the conversation to end—something that will depend on the child’s age. For example, you may want to teach a family value of respect or focus on gratitude. Or perhaps you’re instilling the ability to have uncomfortable conversations because it helps our society evolve.

“Parents need to look at their comfort level and their awareness,” cautions Gillespie. “Are you just opening up this conversation because you want to say you did it? Or are you really intentional about it and have a process and know where you’re going? Kids are naturally curious and they can always handle more than we think if it’s done with care and intention.”

Consider Thanksgiving from a Different Perspective

“It’s important to know that for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning and protest since it commemorates the arrival of settlers in North America and the centuries of oppression and genocide that followed after,” says Native Hope, a nonprofit organization dedicated to dismantling barriers for Native people and to bringing hope and healing through the power of storytelling. In fact, since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have organized a National Day of Mourning rally on November 22nd.

And here’s something else many of us may not realize: For Native Americans, Thanksgiving is already a way of life. “This is because the idea of giving thanks is central to Native heritage and culture, and in this way, Thanksgiving is simply a chance to appreciate the good things of life like family, community, and the riches of the land,” says Native Hope. Long before the Pilgrims arrived, Native American tribes were celebrating the autumn harvest.

And Then Keep the Conversation Going Past the Holidays

November is American Indian Heritage Month and a great time to learn about innovations, cultures, traditions and histories of Native American people. It’s also an opportunity to raise awareness of the challenges that these communities have faced—and are still facing. (For example, a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Covid-19 has a disproportionate impact on American Indian populations.) 

In the educational guide Teaching Young Children About Native Americans, Dr. Debbie Reese, a Pueblo Nambé educator and author, writes: “Provide knowledge about contemporary Native Americans to balance historical information. Teaching about Native Americans exclusively from a historical perspective may perpetuate the idea that they exist only in the past.” In fact, according to the 2010 census, 5.2 million people in the United States identified as American Indian and Alaska Native.

And the learning can and should continue beyond November. “American Indians are still here, living modern lives,” says the NMAI. “Even as contemporary people, many American Indians still retain strong connections to their specific traditions.”

Avoid Stereotypes

“The mainstream version of the Thanksgiving story paints a picture of courageous, Christian settlers, braving the perils of the New World and with the help of some friendly Natives, finding a way to make a new life for themselves,” says Native Hope. And while the way that American kids are learning about the “First Thanksgiving” is changing, there are still problematic portrayals in schools and the media (think Native American headdresses made from construction paper and Thanksgiving reenactments).

“Very few teachers realize that construction headdresses and school re-enactments create a lump stereotype that Native Americans all wear the same regalia. These school activities also encourage young students to think it is okay to wear culture as a costume,” says Native Hope. If you see these examples in school or elsewhere (say, a holiday greeting card), use it as an opportunity to talk to kids about cultural appropriation.

Per Reese, it’s helpful to teach kids about specific tribes rather than “Native Americans” and then to be specific about which tribes use particular items and traditional foods. (FYI: The Wampanoag inhabited Plymouth before the colonists arrived.) “Ideally, choose a tribe with a historical or contemporary role in the local community. Such a unit will provide children with culturally specific knowledge (pertaining to a single group) rather than overgeneralized stereotypes.”

Choose Your Reading Material Carefully

While there are tons of books for kids about Thanksgiving, many of them are highly problematic and are full of inaccuracies or stereotypes. It’s unfortunately challenging to find many truthful accounts, especially from a Native American perspective. But Reese’s website has a helpful list of children’s Thanksgiving books by Native writers for a range of age groups and the Colors of Us blog offers 32 Native American children’s books from various authors for kids ages 0 to middle school.

RELATED: 6 Native American and Indigenous Charities to Donate to for Indigenous Peoples’ Day & Thanksgiving

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