It's Time to Rethink How to Teach Thanksgiving, Native Culture

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November 10, 2020

Even though I live in Canada, I’m an American born-and-raised, and that’s where I teach. For us American teachers, November is often a time in our classrooms full of Thanksgiving iconography. I remember being an elementary school student completing projects with buckle-shoed pilgrims and befeathered Native Americans. As I got older, this transitioned into lessons about gratitude, and once even a memorable math lesson about cooking a large meal, like a Thanksgiving dinner.

As I write, I acknowledge that I am on the ancestral and contemporary land of the Anishinaabe Nation, here in the country of Canada, which was named because of a miscommunication between French colonists and the Huron-Iroquois Tribe. French colonists asked tribe members what the land was called, and they replied “the village” – their word for which is “Kanata.” This miscommunication spun into the name for an entire country, even while that country disenfranchised and victimized the people from whom that name was taken. I acknowledge that I benefit from occupying this land, which is stolen.

What I didn’t have a lot of was meaningful and realistic lessons about Native Americans. I remember believing that Native Americans, for example, were a people from the past, not many cultures that are living and breathing today. These misconceptions, often perpetuated by the way we frame Thanksgiving and similar holidays in our classrooms, do nothing to dismantle the oppression faced by Native people today. If we think of Native cultures as stereotypes from the past, how can we acknowledge and assist in the current and very real issues these communities still face, many of which have been caused by generations of marginalization?

I know many of you have your lesson plans done in advance, but teachers are nothing if not flexible, so this is my plea: re-evaluate your Thanksgiving lesson plans and celebrate Native American Heritage Day instead.

What this looks like will vary widely between classrooms, depending on the ages, subjects and population you teach. Some of you may have already done some of this work last month, teaching Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day. Maybe you’re already doing this. Maybe Native cultures and histories are embedded in your curriculum. But for the rest of us, here are some ideas about how to teach meaningfully on the days leading up to Native American Heritage Day:
  1. Start with yourself. What do you know about Native American cultures, histories and present lives? I’m still near the beginning of this part of the journey myself. Some good places to start include Native Land, where you can find out whose land you live on currently (see the map above), and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.”
  2. Look at your curriculum. How are Native Americans already present? Are they stereotypes? Are they spoken about only in a historical context? Are they present at all? Where can we make spaces within our curriculum for a more accurate exploration of Native cultures? How can we make sure these voices are authentic – from books by Native authors to Native guest speakers?
  3. Have age- and culture-appropriate conversations with your students about power and privilege. Speaking truthfully about the histories and systems that have brought us to this point will help prevent these harmful misconceptions from propagating into the next generation. Also, talking about power and privilege helps give students the vocabulary to speak up when they see injustice in their own lives.
  4. Continue to re-evaluate the curriculum, lessons and materials in your classroom for cultural relevance and honesty. We can always improve what we’re putting in front of our students!
One thing I hope you have noticed is that I’m not advocating for one lesson on Native American cultures. One-and-done thinking on subjects of history and culture are part of what has gotten us into our current situation. Native Americans should not be a one-off lesson on special holidays for your students. Their history and culture should be just as much a part of your classroom as mainstream (i.e. white) American culture and history. But taking a deep dive into a particular perspective on holidays like Native American Heritage Day is never a bad idea.

After all, we do live on their stolen land. Teaching about Native American culture and history is the least we can do.

About Owen Bondono: I teach ninth grade English in Oak Park, MI. I am white, transgender, middle class, married, bi and able-bodied, and my pronouns are he/him/his. I acknowledge that everything I write is informed by the perspectives and privileges I have been afforded in life. As the 2020-2021 Michigan Teacher of the Year, I hope to learn from and advocate for all teachers and students in the state, with a focus on building and supporting a diverse teaching force.
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