As a child, you are taught that the meaning of Thanksgiving is basically a nice dinner that became a holiday from pilgrims and Indians working together. However, as you grow older, you realize that this holiday is actually extremely controversial.
A Brief History of Thanksgiving
Many of us grew up being taught that the Native Americans sat down with the English colonists to have a big feast in the 1600s. With this big feast came friendship and an awesome message about working together with people who are different than you.
Unfortunately, this story is only partially true, and a lot of important details are left out. While there was a big feast where the Indigenous people and the English colonists sat down to enjoy foods like fish, stews, beer, and bread, the end result was not friendship, or anything “warm and fuzzy” like we are led to believe.
The reality is that the treaty these groups created was only temporary. Over time the English colonists began pouring over and taking up the land and resources that belonged to the Indigenous people, also known as the Wampanoag.
Control from the colonists eventually took over the life of the Wampanoag people. Along with taking land away from the Wampanoag, the English colonists brought over disease that was detrimental to their population. Disease claimed the lives of as many as 90% of the Wampanoag people.
Once King Phillip became a leader, a bloody and brutal battle erupted as a result of the tension created by the colonists’ behavior. Many lives were lost in what is now known as King Phillip’s War.
As we take part in crafts and books teaching about Thanksgiving, it becomes so important to remember the whole story. Thanksgiving was the start of an extremely damaging time in history for Indigenous people. Celebrating by enforcing a false narrative is inappropriate.
So, what should you avoid when teaching the meaning of Thanksgiving?
Appropriating the Wampanoag Culture
I remember being encouraged as a kid to craft Indian headdresses (that look nothing like a traditional headdress) and color activity sheets of cartoon Indians that I now realize were a total misrepresentation of the Wampanoag people.
The problem with this is that the ancestors of the group who were oppressive are appropriating the Wampanoag culture by mimicking it.
Plus, many of the things we associate with “Indians” are not even accurate. There isn’t just one universal outfit or headdress for Indigenous people, despite what pop culture has taught us. These things vary depending on things like the tribe, occasion, or gender.
We have condensed an actually pretty diverse group of people with symbolic clothing and accessories to a generalized character that fits our own agenda.
Enforcing a False Narrative
I know that as a child I was taught that the pilgrims and Indians were friends. I was taught that they all helped each other and sat down for a feast to celebrate. That was it, and they lived together happily ever after.
This is a problem, because we are creating heroes and role models out of the English colonists, when in reality they completely destroyed the Wampanoag people’s way of life. They stole and murdered to take land and resources that belonged to the Wampanoag people first. Are these people or habits that we should be glorifying to children? Probably not.
So, if these classic activities are inappropriate, then what should you do instead when you want to celebrate Thanksgiving with your kiddos?
Try to Reach Out to an Indigenous Person to Hear Their Story
Rather than reading about this point in history (or in addition), why not reach out to an Indigenous person so they can tell you about their culture firsthand? This will teach your kiddo that Indigenous people are real people with their own customs, beliefs, and life experience. Not a character who should only be thought of once per year, which, again, is the way they have been taught for years.
Focus on Being Grateful
To teach children appropriate lessons about Thanksgiving, you don’t have to completely nix the positive points.
Encourage your kids to highlight the things they are grateful for during the month of November. You can do this by creating a “box of gratitude,” where each family member adds a slip of paper stating something that they are grateful for daily.
Or, brainstorm 5 things you are grateful for each night before bed.
Create Appropriate Arts and Crafts
You may not be ready to dissect the more disturbing events that happened surrounding this holiday if you have really young children, and that’s fine. The true history lesson can happen later on, but in the meantime try to be sensitive with the activities you do partake in.
Avoid appropriating the Wampanoag culture by focusing your crafts on the meal part of Thanksgiving. There are tons of crafts that you can do by focusing on food. Let your kiddo draw their favorite Thanksgiving foods on a paper plate. You can also design and laminate pieces of food that they can attach to their little laminated plate and mix and match as they please. Or, just let them create a placemat to use with their Thanksgiving meal.
When we talk about Thanksgiving and celebrate it, it becomes so important to watch what we teach children. To avoid passing offensive and inaccurate information from generation to generation, consider doing a bit of research before you plan your activities. You will find that there are plenty of activities that are fun, but not at another person’s expense.