Decolonizing Thanksgiving: A Toolkit for Combatting Racism in Schools

by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Many thanks to the wonderful folks who contributed resources to this document — Amber A. Annis (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe), Carolyn Heckman, Eli Konwest, Nicole McNeil, Sarah Park Dahlen, Katrina Phillips (Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa), Amber Rountree, Meredith Sinclair, Laura Sperry Gardner, & Lauren MacIvor Thompson.

As a historian of race, culture, and identity, I’m constantly tackling tricky issues of racial representation in my teaching and research. Despite this, I’ve long dreaded the day that I would need to confront one of my kids’ teachers about their Thanksgiving curriculum. Stereotypical and racist portrayals of Native peoples fill U.S. elementary schools each November as students encounter historically-inaccurate portrayals of Native peoples in arts & crafts, books and lessons about a shared Thanksgiving meal, and songs and plays with hand-crafted headdresses and vests. But these activities are problematic, because they depict Native peoples in an ahistorical way and perpetuate myths about colonial encounters. These representations of Native peoples are harmful because they compress all Native peoples into a single image of “the Native American at Thanksgiving.” These depictions overlook the immense diversity of Native peoples in North America, while also turning contemporary Native peoples and identities into costumes to be worn.

By taking a decolonizing approach to teaching about Thanksgiving, teachers and families reject the myths of Thanksgiving and harmful stereotypes about Native peoples. Instead, teachers and families can de-romanticize this holiday, by engaging Native perspectives that recognize the diversity of Indigenous peoples and their contemporary presence in 21st-century America. With children’s books like Sally Hunter’s “Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition,” educators can examine historical methods of subsistence and show how these traditions still exist today. Furthermore, teachers can examine the myths of Thanksgiving with students. Older students can even analyze contemporary Native responses to Thanksgiving.

With the help of those folks listed above, I’ve collected a list of resources to help parents approach their children’s schools to advocate for a more inclusive approach to discussing Thanksgiving. These resources will also be useful for teachers wanting to alter their approach to teaching about Native peoples and Thanksgiving.

Sample Letters to Send to your Child’s School

**Please feel free to adapt these letters in writing to your schools.**

Letter by Katrina Phillips, Ph.D. (Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa). This letter recognizes the harms caused by a problematic classroom activity and suggests Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms as a suggested resource for ideas for teaching Native culture to children.

Letter by Lauren MacIvor Thompson, Ph.D. This letter discusses problematic classroom activities and advocates for discussion of local Native peoples in the classroom. Another letter by Lauren speaks to dressing in Native costumes.

Another sample letter. Short and to the point, this letter points out that dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians fails to foster inclusivity in school environments and perpetuates myths of Thanksgiving.

Archaeology Education Clearing House, PDF or Word. A generic letter advocating for inclusive education and discussion of diversity of Native peoples in the past and present.

Resources for Educators and Families to Teach about Thanksgiving & Native Peoples in a Socially Responsible Way

“Ten Ways to Make Your Thanksgiving about Social and Environmental Justice,” by Eve Bratman (2016). While some of her suggestions were specific to 2016, Bratman offers suggestions for individuals and families to change their holiday traditions to take action against racism, social injustice, and environmental degradation.

Teaching Tolerance, “Teaching Thanksgiving in a Socially Responsible Way,” by Amanda Morris (2015). Includes resources to “help educators [disrupt] the hegemonic Thanksgiving story,” as well as an explanation of how these depictions of Native people are harmful.

Montana Office of Public Instruction, “PreK-12 Social Studies Lesson Plans & Resources.” 100+ lessons and resources grouped by grade level (PreK-2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12) including lessons rethinking Thanksgiving and lessons considering Native culture and tradition, land use, historical inaccuracies in movies, etc.

Archaeology Education Clearing House, “Thanksgiving Teacher Resources.” Includes background reading for teachers, as well as videos, books, and activities for students., “Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the Classroom with These Resources,” by Mickey Kudia (2015). A set of resources about challenging stereotypes about Native peoples, celebrating the accomplishments & culture of Native Americans, and teaching a more complex story of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.

Border Crossers, “A Racial Justice Guide to Thanksgiving for Educators and Families.” A list of compiled resources for talking about Thanksgiving through “an anti-racist and racial justice lens,” including teaching resources & lesson plans, historical resources, and information on Native American Perspectives, Contributions and Celebrations.

“Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms,” by Guy W. Jones (Hunkpapa Lakota) and Sally Moomaw (2002). This book includes five cross-cultural themes — Children, Home, Families, Community, and the Environment — and includes ideas to “incorporate authentic learning experiences about Native Americans into your curriculum.”

Oyate, “Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving,” by Judy Dow (Abenaki) (2006). Counters 11 myths about Thanksgiving like “The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.”

National Museum of the American Indian, “American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving.” A resource for teachers grades 4–8 providing context and lesson ideas around the following themes: 1) Environment: Understanding the Natural World, 2) Community: Group Identity in Culture, 3) Encounter: Effects on Cultures, and 4) Sharing: New Perspectives Year-Round.

Children’s Books about Native Peoples, Cultures, and Traditions

Bowwow Powwow,” by Brenda J. Child (Red Lake Ojibwe). Story in English with companion retelling in Ojibwe.

“We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga,” by Traci Sorell (Cherokee). Includes a glossary and the complete Cherokee syllabary.

“The First Strawberries” by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki).

“Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition,” by Sally M. Hunter (Ojibwe), Grades 4–6.

“Rabbit Goes Duck Hunting: A Traditional Cherokee Legend” by Deborah L. Duvall

“Clambake: A Wampanoag Tradition,” by Russell M. Peters (Wampanoag), Grades 4–6.

“The Sacred Harvest: Ojibway Wild Rice Gathering,” by Gordon Regguinti (Ojibwe), Grades 4–6.

“Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message,” by Jake Swamp (Mohawk), all grades.

“Ininatig’s Gift of Sugar: Traditional Native Sugarmaking,” by Laura Waterman Wittstock (Seneca), Grades 4–6.

“First Fire: A Cherokee Folktale” by Nancy Kelly Allen

**Many of these books are recommended by Oyate.**

Lists of Children’s Books about Native Peoples, Cultures, & Traditions

List: Indian Country Today, “Beyond the So-Called First Thanksgiving: 5 Children’s Books,” by Debbie Reese (2013).

List: The Conscious Kid, #WEARESTILLHERE: **Contemporary** Indigenous Reads by Indigenous Authors (2018).

List: American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL), “Best Books by or about American Indians and First Nations?” For more reading suggestions for children’s books by Native peoples and about Native peoples, this site “provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.” The page includes “links to book reviews, Native media, and more.”

Please feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments below. Thanks for taking on this important work of changing how we teach about Native peoples and Thanksgiving in our schools and homes!

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Lindsey Passenger Wieck

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is an educator, urban historian, and advocate for integrating local culture and history in the classroom.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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