Thanksgiving for the Indigenous People of America

It’s important that we consider the other side of this holiday and what it symbolizes to the First Nation.

Thanksgiving is this heart-warming time that seems to transcend all the lines. The narrative is about celebrating diversity, sharing food, and expressing gratitude. The story we tell our kid is also touching: the Pilgrims escaped persecution, arriving in the new world, and the native people took them in, showing them how to survive. That part is historically accurate. The problem is that this sentimental story leaves out a very painful and violent slice of history.

For the tribes of North America, the arrival of Europeans marked the end of their way of life. It wreaked havoc on an overwhelmingly civilized and peaceful network of people who had lived here for thousands of years.

In the same way that celebrating Columbus Day is an affront to Native Americans because of Christopher Columbus’ dealings in the slave trade, Thanksgiving is a very narrow view of history that ignores the genocide that nearly wiped out these tribes. In fact, many tribal members today refer to the holiday as “The Day or Mourning.”1

So the question becomes: can we celebrate this holiday in a way that is more inclusive? Our kindergartners are a little young to grasp (or perhaps stomach) the Trail of Tears, but there are ways we can honor the original Americans as we celebrate Thanksgiving.

  1. Don’t teach historically inaccurate information. The feast with the headdresses and the tall hats is a one-dimensional view of the event that gave birth to the holiday, but it wasn’t even celebrated in a widespread way until after the Civil War, according to historians2. We can go back and redraw the narrative, emphasizing that when the European settlers arrived on these shores, they were treated with respect and fairness by the Wampanoag tribe. These groups did not always get along and there were many conflicts in the early days of what we now call the United States.
  1. Take the opportunity to teach your kids about some real life Native American heroes. It’s true that it’s very difficult to tell the story of America’s Indigenous cultures without also talking about war, famine, disease, broken treaties, and other atrocities. But consider Sacagawea, the squaw who led Lewis and Clark through the wilderness at the age of 19, covering hundreds of miles with a baby on her back. Or Will Rogers, the famous Native American Cowboy who became a world class entertainer.
  1. Keep the touchstones of Thanksgiving to emphasize inclusion. Giving thanks and sharing are values we hope to impart on our kids, not just this one day, but all days. The cornucopia is a lovely symbol of abundance, and the turkey is a totem of the season too. We can keep these symbols and still respect history.
  1. Read some age-appropriate books with them. Highly recommended titles about celebrating diversity for kids include: Lincoln’s Way by Patricia Polacco, or I too, Am American by Langston Hughes.
  1. Show how other cultures give thanks. We can tell out children factually that some native peoples celebrate Thanksgiving differently or not at all. We can give them examples of modern day sharing. For refugees fleeing economic hardship or war, there are new, real-world examples of kindness and generosity every day.

The thing we need to keep in mind as we prepare for Thanksgiving is how susceptible our young children are and they we should open the conversation and remain aligned with the historic facts as much as we can. In doing this, we honor the many people who suffered and still suffer because of the injustices Europeans inflicted on Native Americans. We keep our hearts open in the hopes that our children will live in a better world, a more just world and that we can all sit down to the table, share, give, and truly give thanks.





About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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