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What to Say to Kids about Pilgrims and Indians

My kindergartener came home excited this weekend -- he’d gotten a free book, one that he could keep! He wanted to read it right away.

As soon as I saw the book, I tried to deflect. “Maybe later, honey.” Nope! Now!

“Wouldn’t you like to find a different book? There a whole bunch of new ones from the library on the table.” Nope! This one! The Indian one.

It’s Thanksgiving season in the United States -- when many of our kids will come home with construction paper head-dresses and mythology about a peaceful dinner between "Pilgrims and Indians."

Here are a few tips that Carol Bremer-Bennett (the co-Director of World Renew, who is Navajo) helped us put together that parents can use to help their children gain a more accurate picture of our Thanksgiving myth and its impact on Native Americans during this season.

1. Stop calling it “The First Thanksgiving.” This phrase continues the myth that things didn't begin until the Europeans arrived and started writing things down. Native Americans had been holding harvest celebrations and feasts of thanksgiving every year -- probably for hundreds of years prior to the landing of the Pilgrims. For that matter, it probably wasn't a first for the English either, as harvest festivals happen in every culture worldwide.

2. Insert specifics. Our archetypical story -- Pilgrims and Native people sitting down for a peaceful shared meal -- contains little by way of specifics. The tribe that ate this meal with the Pilgrims was the Wampanoag (wahm-pah-NOH-ag). In the 1600s, there were as many as 40,000 people in 67 villages who were part of the Wampanoag Nation (which still exists!). This nation once stretched all along the East Coast (what is now called New England). Naming the tribe and explaining its size helps to dispel the myth of a small, simple, generic "Indian" people that existed only in the past.

And, of course, explain that we use the name of the tribe or the term "Native American" or "Native People" today -- ”Indians" was an inaccurate name that the European settlers gave to the Native Americans without their permission, and it's a term that is a bit outdated and can be hurtful to use today. The best way to refer to Native Americans is to use their specific tribe's name; try to learn it out of respect for them.

3.  Talk about your own region's history. Find out what tribes lived on the land that you now inhabit, and where those people are today. Maybe there are specific ways that you can differentiate between tribes -- particularly addressing some of the common stereotypes that are depicted in illustrations of Native Americans. For example, the Ottawa did not live in tepees, but in villages of birchbark houses (sometimes called wigwams). It was the Plains tribes (e.g. the Sioux) who wore long headdresses, generally it was not worn by those on the East Coast or the Midwest. Some tribes were well known for what they made (the Ottawa made birchbark canoes), some wore leather moccasins on their feet, etc. Encourage questioning about the accuracy of illustrations that you see during Thanksgiving -- who wore that kind of dress, or that kind of hair style? Does it make sense to see a canoe and a tepee in the same picture? If you don't know, find out together.

4. Talk about Native Americans today. Teaching about Native Americans exclusively from a historical perspective may perpetuate the idea that they exist only in the past.

Explain that today, Native Americans live in houses similar to yours. They drive cars and eat at restaurants; the kids go to school, play video games, help around the house; they wear jeans and tennis shoes. Maybe sometimes they paddle a canoe -- and maybe sometimes you do, too!

Older kids may be ready to better understand Reservations. Explain that Reservations were first started to keep Native Americans contained in a designated area. Talk about how there can be fear of people who are different from each other and how we are called to see the image of God in one another. Even though the Reservation land is owned by the U.S. government, each tribe has its own government, law, police, and services, just like a small country. They have a political leader (sometimes called a chief, but more often called the chairperson or president) who is usually elected, just like mayors or governors. Maybe pull out a map and find Reservations that are close to where you live.

5. Name the injustice. There are age-appropriate ways to address the important history of genocide that our country still struggles to face.

For younger children, it may be enough to simply state the idea that Europeans came to a land that belonged to Native Americans, and they did not always get along. For a long time, as more Europeans came, Native Americans lost a lot of family and land, and there is still sadness about that.

For kids who are a little older, helping to balance the perspective may be helpful. Not all the European settlers wanted to kill Native people -- there were settlers who were kind and compassionate, and who named the wrong that they saw happening. Some Native people, like Squanto and Pocahontas, thought the best path was to befriend the European newcomers, even though that sometimes backfired. Other Native people saw the Europeans as a threat to the Native way of life and decided to fight to save their land and people. Just like you, people in history had complicated emotions and reactions; they weren't simple.

If your kids seem old enough, you may also point out that the choices that were made long ago continue to have effects today. Reservations are places where there is a lot of happiness and pride, but they are also places where people too often struggle to find jobs, to have enough to eat and earn enough money to pay their bills. There is still sadness and anger about all the families who died, and how unfair it was that the land was stolen. There were a lot of years when Native Americans were forced to change their culture to be more like Europeans, and even taken away from their family to “unlearn” their culture. This has caused a lot of pain, anger, sadness. And our country is not very good at talking about that pain, anger, and sadness, which is still very real today. Even if we cannot change the painful choices that were made in the past, there are still ways that we can build a better future: we can tell the truth about our history, we can unlearn the simple and sometimes harmful stories that we have learned, we can ask our leaders to help make things more fair today.

Interested in building a library of better books on this subject?

Check out this list of five books that tell a more accurate story about Thanksgiving, and this list of recommended books (for all age levels) that have Native American themes.

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