Every year as fall approaches, Indigenous communities around the United States experience amplified erasure, misrepresentation and gaslighting of America’s colonialist and complex history. From harmful Columbus Day activities to picture books that depict a false story about the first Thanksgiving, we have a lot of work to do if we want to teach children to seek out the truth and push back against the status quo.
We can acknowledge that holiday celebrations are a time of memory-making and connecting with our loved ones, while also disrupting the myth of Thanksgiving that does not serve young children. It’s important for children to recognize that the Pilgrims had nothing to do with Indigenous peoples’ observance of autumnal harvest celebrations or giving thanks to the creator on a daily basis. Instead, the origins of Thanksgiving mark a time in America’s history that almost obliterated Indigenous peoples.
This year, shift your approach to Thanksgiving in the classroom by focusing on seeking truth, fostering deep connections with people and place, and centering Indigenous voices and knowledge.
Connect with Parents
Be proactive by sending home a letter to parents before Thanksgiving arrives. As an educator, I found that having courageous conversations with families bridges the home-to-school gap and supports families in feeling seen, heard and valued. Here are a few talking points to help you get started:
- Emphasize understanding and growth. In the first paragraph of your letter, let caregivers know that you understand that every family has different holiday celebrations that are meaningful to them. Explain that you’d love to learn more about the holidays they celebrate and weave them into the curriculum in your classroom. Elaborate that learning about the holidays celebrated by different families supports kids in seeing the ways in which they are similar and different from their peers, and strengthens critical thinking skills.
- Provide some facts. Explain to parents that Thanksgiving is often presented in highly problematic ways when kids are taught false narratives that perpetuate harmful stereotypes of Indigenous people and communities. Invite families to think about the “why” behind their celebrations. For example, ask them to reflect on how we might center our relationships and connection with the land in ways that amplify Indigenous communities in your local area.
- Give an overview of replacement activities. Include a few book recommendations written by Indigenous authors for parents to explore with their children. “Wild Berries” and “Birdsong” by Julie Flett, a Cree-Métis author, illustrator and artist, provide a beautiful opportunity to discuss the importance of relationships to people and land.
Foster Community and Gratitude
Encourage children to reflect on their favorite parts of the holidays they celebrate with their families and communities. What do they enjoy best? The food? Spending time with their loved ones? Hearing stories about their ancestors, the people in their families who lived long ago? Elaborate that holidays are a perfect time to focus on all the things we are grateful for. Here are a few ways to do just that:
- Create a gratitude collage or tree. Children will need a tree branch or large piece of cardboard, coloring materials, hole puncher, family photos or magazines (that can be taped, glued, etc.), notecards, ribbons, leaf cutouts, gems, stickers, etc.
- Invite children to find a special tree branch outside, or ask them to get out a large piece of cardboard from an old box.
- Explain to children that they can cut out magazine pictures that make them feel good or remind them of a special time or tradition. If your students have access to family photographs, make sure that they can be glued down to the collage or hole-punched and hung on the tree branch. Check in with caregivers prior to asking children to do this.
- Ask children to reflect on some of the things for which they are grateful. Ideas include family, books, nature, love, community, learning, life, warmth or a special person, pet, stuffed animal, place, musical instrument or game.
- Guide children in writing or drawing their ideas on the notecards of leaf cutouts. Show children how to hole punch their ideas and place them on the tree branch. Alternatively, ask children to glue their ideas on the cardboard or construction paper.
- Extend the activity by inviting children to decorate the tree branch or collage with ribbons and other found materials.
- Tell stories. Ask children to think of some of their favorite traditions or holiday celebrations and hold space for them to share them in class. Invite children who are able to write to record their memories in a special handmade journal, like this one.
- Read poems of thanks. Read “Thanku Poems of Gratitude” by Miranda Paul and Marlena Myles. This anthology brings together incredible contributors such as Indigenous writers Cynthia Leitich Smith and Joseph Bruchac. Invite children to create their own poems using words, drawings and dance.
Develop Relationships With the Land You Are On
Provide children with a deep connection to place by learning more about the land in your community.
- Seek out information about the land you are on by heading to the website Whose Land.
- Extend your appreciation of the land by teaching children about what responsible stewardship to all plants on Earth means.
- Check out these ideas created by Trisha Moquino, from the tribal communities of Cochiti, Kewa, and Ohkay Ohwingeh Pueblos in New Mexico, and Lynette Stant, from the Dine’ Nation, about centering Indigenous Knowledge Systems with children.
- Listen to the Algonquin Water Song and read “Nibi is Water” by Joanna Robertson with children and discuss how we can change our relationship with water and other natural resources local to our area.
- Watch Molly create Alaska Native ice cream, nivagi, in the episode “New Nivagi” from the PBS KIDS series “Molly of Denali.” Discuss how Molly uses her knowledge of the land and people around her to improvise a traditional recipe when things go wrong. Extend the learning by having students create their very own recipe book.
These shifts will provide children with a meaningful way to come together in community. By disrupting the myth of the first Thanksgiving, children will learn the importance of always asking “why” and reflect on who is being validated and who is too often erased and silenced.
Resources for Educators of Young Children
- Learn the history: Lyla June - "The Truth of Thanksgiving"
- American Indian Perspectives of Thanksgiving - adapt the lesson material to meet the needs of younger students.
- Rethinking Early Childhood Education - the chapter “Holiday Lessons Learned in an Early Childhood Classroom” provides a glimpse into how one teacher disrupted misinformation by developing a set of anti-bias holiday practices.
- “Lessons from Turtle Island” by Guy W. Jones and Sally Moomaw
- “Rethinking Columbus” by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson
- American Indians in Children’s Literature
- National Congress of American Indians