As a scholar in Native American/Indigenous Studies, it is easy to talk about everything wrong with the way Thanksgiving still gets addressed in preschools, k-12 contexts, and the media. “Indian” is of course a racial designation imposed on a big diverse group of Indigenous peoples. And when kids make construction paper headdresses and pretend to be “Indians,” they enact a particular invention of the white imagination based on a stereotyped version of plains Indians. Playing Indian is not new (see Philip Deloria’s book Playing Indian), but it sure gets old. I would be a little more understanding if a child was asked to portray a specific Wampanoag character in the historical drama—say, Massasoit or Tisquantum. That would be sort of like that white elementary school student who a year or two back experienced a controversial reception when he donned black face to portray Martin Luther King Jr. for a school project. But “Indians.” Really? Can you imagine a white kid coming home from school to say “I’m a Black person!” In a big straw hat. And then when he saw an actual African American person saying that they aren’t a real Black person because they are wearing jeans and a t-shirt. And no hat. Man, does the non-Native policing of Native authenticity start soon!
But enough of the easy what’s wrong part. What about the how to do it better part? I’m trying. Should’ve been trying harder for a much longer time than I have but white guilt is really really really not the point so let’s focus on action. Today I presented to three, four, and five year olds at my son’s school that has a predominantly, maybe entirely, non-Native student and teacher population. It would’ve been great if we could have gotten a local Native community leader or artist or teacher to present, and maybe we will next year. But we all need to be responsible for this. Not just Native folks but non-Native allies, too. It’s clearly going to take a lot of people to change things as evidenced by how little has changed in most places despite loads of Native and non-Native parents, teachers, scholars, activists, authors, and artists working hard on this for a long time already.
What I did with the preschoolers this morning was really quite simple. Step 1: Teach them that the Native people who helped the English grow crops are one of hundreds of different Native nations and that they have a name. Teach them how to say it: Wampanoag. Step 2: Explain that there are still lots of Wampanoag people and other American Indian people contributing to the good of their communities and the world. Step 3: Show photos of reenactors in the book 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving while talking in age appropriate terms about the people, activities, and food at the 1621 gathering of English and Wampanoag people. Step 4: Teach the children a song my son and I made up about the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash (because it is more fun to pretend to be green beans growing around your friend who is pretending to me corn that it is to dress up like an “Indian” anyway). Step 5: Remind the children again that there are still lots of Native people belonging to hundreds of different American Indian nations around today, including Muscogee Creek and Cherokee people from the place we live: Georgia. Step 6: Read them The Jingle Dress Dancer by the Muscogee writer Cynthia Leitich Smith. Point out that the contemporary Muscogee protagonist, Jenna, usually wears jeans and a t-shirt. I have some English ancestry, but I don’t dress like a pilgrim. And Jenna doesn’t have to dress like Muscogee people did a long time ago to be Muscogee. Also point out that her regalia is not a costume and explain why it is special (the author’s note at the back helps with that). But mostly let them enjoy this great story.
That’s it. I could’ve done more. I could’ve done better. (Please share your ideas!) But I’m glad I did something.
PS Search Debbie Reese’s amazing American Indians in Children’s Literature blog for “Thanksgiving” to learn about good books, bad books, problematic books, and more. Also see http://www.oyate.org/index.php/resources/43-resources/thanksgiving.