School Thanksgiving activities often mean dressing children in “Indian” headdresses and paper feathers as they sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” or “Mr. Turkey.” Some teachers might even ask their students to draw themselves as Native Americans from the past, complete with feather-adorned headbands and buckskin clothing. These activities might seem friendly and fun, unless you are aware of how damaging this imagery is to perceptions of contemporary Native peoples. This imagery contributes to the indoctrination of American youth into a false narrative that relegates indigenous peoples to the past and turns real human beings into costumes for a few days a year. It’s not just bad pedagogy; it’s socially irresponsible.
Native Americans have been speaking out and writing back against the colonialist narrative of Thanksgiving for as long as the American narrative has existed. More recently, comedian Jim Ruel (Ojibwe) includes Thanksgiving in his act (starting at 1:40 in this clip), Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) writes about children’s books that “set the record straight,” and Native American students speak out about what Thanksgiving means to them.
Doris Seale (Santee/Cree) and Beverly Slapin (Dakota/Cree/Abenaki) edited A Broken Flute in 2005, which includes a chapter that deconstructs the myths perpetuated about the first Thanksgiving. This chapter also includes critical reviews of many books on the market or readily available in libraries and classrooms. Providing ample evidence that many non-Native publishers, illustrators and writers are missing the mark in several critical ways, these books exemplify the ineffectiveness of good intentions, the perpetuation of misinformation and the exclusion of Native American voices and experiences.
Teaching about Thanksgiving in a socially responsible way means that educators accept the ethical obligation to provide students with accurate information and to reject traditions that sustain harmful stereotypes about indigenous peoples. Thankfully, there are excellent online resources that can help educators interested in disrupting the hegemonic Thanksgiving story.
- Teaching Tolerance offers a set of “Thanksgiving
Mourning” activities for grades 6-8 and 9-12 that ask students to consider
Thanksgiving from a Native American perspective.
- Project Archeology provides
links to resources and activities adaptable for all grade levels.
- The National Museum of the American Indian offers
a comprehensive resource with teacher-facing ideas and activities for
- Plimouth Plantation has a Just for Teachers section
that outlines professional development opportunities, workshops, a virtual
Thanksgiving fieldtrip and activities that incorporate the Wampanoag
perspective. In one interactive activity, kids are detectives figuring out what
really happened at the first meal.
Mashpee/Wampanoag Tribe’s brief history and cultural timeline outlines the
nation’s “contact experience” from their contemporary perspective.
- Scholastic’s First Thanksgiving page has teacher’s guides, activities and ideas for pre-K through grade 8. These resources include the opportunity to sign up for emailed “Letters from the New World” with the historical perspectives of a Wampanoag boy and a pilgrim girl.
- The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head offers an activity for grades 3-6 about millennia-old traditions of giving thanks.
Challenging the dominant and inaccurate narrative about Thanksgiving, providing students with a more balanced perspective of this oft-romanticized holiday, and refusing to dress students in feathered headbands are socially responsible actions. They’re actions that every teacher should undertake to benefit their students and the society their students will inherit.
Morris teaches writing and Native American/Indigenous Rhetorics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.