En la Clase: (Re)Teaching Thanksgiving

Fall 3As many of you may know, November is Native American Heritage Month.  As Lorraine pointed out in Monday’s post on the book Encounter, many of the same significant issues arise when we teach about conquest, colonization and Christopher Columbus as they do when we teach about Thanksgiving.  In today’s En la Clase I’m going to share a number of resources for (re)thinking how we approach teaching about Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month.

We’ve mentioned Debbie Reese’s blog American Indians in Children’s Literature a number of times here on Vamos a Leer.  It is an amazing resource.  If you’re not familiar with it, I highly suggest you spend some time there.  She recently posted the article “Some thoughts about Native American Month and Thanksgiving.”  Below I’ve shared an excerpt that touches on some ideas I think we all need to consider as we rethink what our approach to much of the November-themed curriculum.

“In the opening chapter of Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out Of Here (2013, Arthur A. Levine Books), the main character, Lewis, is walking home. The time of year is August.  Lewis lives on the Tuscarora Reservation. Here’s what Lewis is thinking:

As I turned the corner at Dog Street, where I lived, I could see my old elementary school. The teachers would be in their classrooms now, decorating bulletin boards with WELCOME TO THE 1975-1976 SCHOOL YEAR! in big construction-paper letters. They were going to be puzzled by the fact that the United States Bicentennial Celebration wasn’t exactly a reservation priority, since we’d been here for a lot longer than two hundred years.

That puzzlement is what today’s post is about. Lewis’s people identify with a tribal nation that has been here far longer than the nation we know as the United States of America. I think it fair to say that the US marks two moments of historical significance. One is its independence on July 4, 1776. But Independence Day is preceded by “the first Thanksgiving” in 1621. (Set aside time to read and study What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving: The Wampanoag Side of the Tale.)

In schools across the country, Native peoples appear in the curriculum at specific times of the year. Like this month. November. Thanksgiving.

Coincidentally (?), November is Native American Month. I suspect November may have been chosen because that is the month when the US celebrates Thanksgiving. As such, I think it seemed (to someone) to be the ideal month for Americans to “reflect on the profound ways the First Americans have shaped our country’s character and culture.” That phrase is in the opening line of President Obama’s 2014 Presidential Proclamation designating this as National Native American Heritage Month. The first president to proclaim November as Native American Month was George H. W. Bush, in 1990 (see the full list of proclamations here).

People mean well. They have good intentions. But even President Obama’s opening remark indicates a framework that doesn’t work. Are Native peoples “the First Americans?” I know a good many Native people who would say they’re citizens of their tribal nation first and foremost, and I’ve read that Native leaders who fought the U.S. in the 1800s wouldn’t call themselves Americans at all.”

Reese’s post goes on to share a number of discussion points and resources, including books and video.  I hope you’ll read the whole article.  She also posted a great review of Anton Treuer’s book Everything You Wanted To Know About Indians But Were Afraid To Ask that’s definitely worth reading.

In classrooms across the United States, students will learn about Thanksgiving in one manner or another over the next three weeks.  I hope that we can rethink what that looks like, just as we have continued to advocate for teaching a more historically accurate view of what actually happened when Columbus arrived in the Americas.  I think it’s important to broach conversations with our students that discuss how contemporary injustices are in part allowed to persist because of the myths perpetuated around historical events like the first Thanksgiving and Columbus’ conquest.  There are resources available to teach about these responsibly.  As a former teacher, I know it can be time consuming to find and research available resources.  With this in mind, I’ve shared some below.  Some are past posts we’ve shared here on Vamos a Leer and others are links to resources that you may want to share with your students.

I’m certainly not saying that we remove all teaching about Thanksgiving from our classrooms.  I think it’s a topic that opens up a number of important conversations around conquest, colonization, and the writing of history.  I also think that it’s important for both teachers and students to have conversations around the idea of thankfulness, but these don’t have to revolve around a historically inaccurate myth that may very well be alienating to many of our students.  We do have much to be thankful for, including access to alternative versions of history and the freedom to critique and think critically about what we are taught.

I’d love to hear your thoughts or how you plan on teaching about Thanksgiving in your classrooms.  Please share in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “En la Clase: (Re)Teaching Thanksgiving

  1. You ended your post nicely with the suggestion that we shouldn’t remove teaching about Thanksgiving from classrooms, but instead use the occasion to have conversations about conquest, colonization and the rewriting of history. I also looked at one of the link “Mira,Look! Rethinking Thanksgiving”. I like the phrase “Mira, Look!” ..:)
    This talk again about Native Indians led me to check about Native Indians in the Southwest, wanting to see if they are related to the Natives south in Mexico. New Mexico state stands out as the only state that kept its percentage of native indians. New Mexico has 9.4% of its population as Native Indians. Arizona and Oklahoma had a much larger percentage in the past but it went down dramatically. I see that New Mexico has many tribes: Apache, Navajo and Pubelo .. where the Pueblo seems to be connected to Mexico in their history, so like to read more about them. Thanks, Katrina, for this topic that hopefully will be read by many teachers.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Giora. We always appreciate your comments! We like Mira, Look too 🙂 It’s a saying that we hear frequently in New Mexico where so many people speak both English and Spanish, and we thought it’d be perfect for the kinds of things we wanted to share in those types of posts. The history of Native Americans in the U.S. is really quite interesting, and disturbing as well. It’s definitely something that I wish was interrogated more in our school curriculum.

  2. Pingback: WWW: Thanks but No Thanks: Creating a November with No Stereotypes | Vamos a Leer

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