En la Clase: American Indian Month and Rethinking Thanksgiving

The Fallen | Photo by David Nutter

Thanksgiving is just around the corner.  As a holiday typically celebrated only in the United States, initially I had no plans to write about it for Vamos a Leer.   But the longer I thought about it, the more I came to believe it was an important topic, one we should comment on at Vamos a Leer, regardless of the amount of explicit Latin American content.  It certainly relates to issues surrounding how we deal with conquest and colonization, multicultural education, and cultural representations—all topics that we have discussed in various blog posts.

Now, I realize that Thanksgiving is a week away, so many of you may already have your lesson plans in place.  But that doesn’t mean the following thoughts and resources are of no use to you, especially since the entire month of November is American Indian Month.  Many of these ideas could be used in the weeks following Thanksgiving, continuing themes and ideas you may have raised before Thanksgiving break.  If nothing else, it’s never too early to start planning for next year—keep note of the ideas that resonate with you, map out some new lesson plans, or print out useful resources so that you’re ready to go next year.

I have vague recollections of learning about Thanksgiving when I was in elementary school.   All of my memories involve some notion of Pilgrims and Indians, and many include making construction paper headdresses or black hats and white collars.  Luckily, I was exposed to resources like some you’ll find below before I actually had to teach about Thanksgiving to my own students.  My students never re-enacted the first Thanksgiving or dressed up as Pilgrims and Indians.  Instead, the month of November was dedicated to learning about various Native American groups, both in terms of past history and current events.  It was a unit that built on many of the same ideas we had discussed about exploration, conquest and colonization in our October unit on Christopher Columbus.

Just to be certain that you don’t misunderstand this as some sort of ‘holier than thou’ post on how perfectly I dealt with such complex issues as Native American history and current representations, I’m certain I never presented a flawless unit to my students.  Each year, once our unit was done, I had a list of things I wanted to do better the next year.  Each year, I learned something new or came across a resource that complicated something that I thought I already understood, and thus required me to rethink how I would present this new content to my students.  I think the key is that we remain open and reflective, acknowledging that we are learning about many of these things, just as our students are.  I was struck by the following quote from Michael Dorris.  When I read it, it reminded me how important it is that we critically interrogate many of the myths that we perpetuate in our classrooms each year—not just for ourselves, but for our students—both those who may leave our classrooms miseducated, and those who are harmed by the caricatures we provide of their own cultures.

“Native Americans have more than one thing not to be thankful about on Thanksgiving.  Pilgrim Day, and its antecedent feast Halloween, represent the annual twin peaks of Indian stereotyping.  From early October through the end of November, “cute little Indians” abound on greeting cards, advertising posters, in costumes and school projects.  Like stock characters from a vaudeville repertoire, they dutifully march out of the folk-cultural attic (and right down Madison Avenue!) ughing and wah-wah-wahing, smeared with lipstick and rouged; decked out in an assortment of “Indian suits” composed of everything from old clothes to fringed paper bags, little trick-or-treaters and school pageant extras mindlessly sport and cavort.  Considering that virtually none of the standard fare surrounding either Halloween or Thanksgiving contains an ounce of authenticity, historical accuracy, or cross-cultural perception, why is it so apparently ingrained? Is it necessary to the American psyche to perpetually exploit and debase its victims in order to justify its history? And do Native Americans have to reconcile themselves to forever putting up with such exhibitions of puerile ethnocentrism?” (Rethinking Columbus, p. 76).

As we think about what Dorris is saying above, here is what we have to keep in mind: “The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history, but honest and inclusive history” (Rethinking Columbus, p. 80).  There are a multitude of resources out there to help us do that.  I know many of our readers are familiar with the Rethinking Schools Publication Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 YearsEarlier this fall, we did a number of posts about this resource and various ways to rethink how we present the Columbus narrative in our classrooms. This same publication also has an entire section on rethinking Thanksgiving (as you probably already guessed given the sources of my quotes above).  This section has some great articles, including one that takes apart many of the historical myths about Thanksigiving, along with a section on how to implement and use these resources in the classroom.  It’s a great place to start.

The Rethinking Schools Blog also posted a great article, “Resources for American Indian Month” by Debbie Reese that includes a number of excellent classroom resources.  It’s full of links to excellent books and other ideas for teaching about American Indians, including top ten lists of books for all grade levels and ideas for projects on American Indians.  She also has an excellent website, American Indians in Children’s Literature, full of more resources.

As always feel free to share your own thoughts and ideas.


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