by: Susan Rohwer
Photo: Frank Doerger

This week, schoolchildren across the country will come home from elementary and preschool armed with cutout paper turkeys and stories excitedly recounted about the first Thanksgiving, all those years ago in Plymouth, Mass. At school, most will learn the traditional narrative of hungry Pilgrims aided by friendly Native Americans, who shared their bounty with their less-fortunate immigrant neighbors.


But while this heartwarming story may be historically accurate, what happens next to these 17th century Native Americans and their descendants is usually left out of the classroom. Strikingly, Thanksgiving is often the only time of the year when Americans think about the history, however partial, of Native Americans. But aren’t we missing an opportunity to use this holiday as a springboard to really talk to our children about Native American history and cultures?


Unfortunately, we haven’t come very far when it applies to the visibility of Native Americans in American culture. Recently, there has been much discussion about racist depictions of Native Americans in the sports world, and it’s not hard to find other racist stereotypes in pop culture. You are guaranteed to see caricatured “Indians” on Halloween, in fashion and in movies. Too often, Native Americans are reduced to mascots or caricatures, and even many well-intentioned efforts at including Native Americans in children’s books fall flat.


Recently, I went to my local library for books about Thanksgiving to read to my daughter. I was disappointed with how simplistic and watered-down the images of Native Americans were, even for children’s books. For example, nowhere were the Wampanoag named; instead, they were called simply “Indian” or “Native American.” And these stories ignore the tensions that existed between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, focusing only on a single Thanksgiving meal, as if that moment was representative of the broader complex history.


Seeing these stories made me wonder how I could counteract these oversimplified and problematic depictions of Native Americans once my daughter gets old enough to start taking them in.


Fortunately, there are resources that could be helpful in…click here to see the complete list of resources including books and guides in breaking down the truth of Thanksgiving to your little ones.


I of course want everyone to enjoy time with your loved ones but please remember the history on which we our giving our thanks for, because truth knows no age.