Last week I wrote a post about the importance of reading books to your children that introduce them to different cultures, religions, and ethnicities to better appreciate and value diversity, thereby fostering empathy for others. Today I wanted to further the conversation in honor of National American Indian Heritage Month, observed every November, especially as we gear up for Thanksgiving.
“American Indian images, names, and stories infuse American history and contemporary life. Pervasive, powerful, at times demeaning, the images, names, and stories reveal the deep connection between Americans and American Indians as well as how Indians have been embedded in unexpected ways in the history, pop culture, and identity of the United States” (nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov).
“Pilgrims and Indians”
Growing up I remember school Thanksgiving celebrations involving pilgrim hats, feathered headdresses, and a camaraderie around a turkey dinner that led me to believe that the “pilgrims” and “Indians” had quickly become friends and held a mutually beneficial relationship. As I grew older and progressed through school, I learned that the relationship was more nuanced, but I was still shielded from, some could say lied to, about the oppressive and violent relationship between the early settlers and Native Nations.
To be honest, I am still on a learning journey to educate our children and myself regarding the historical and current injustices surrounding Native Nations.
Last November our family actually visited Plymouth, MA the week of Thanksgiving, so we had done extra reading and preparation to try to understand what life was like for the early settlers and for the Wampanoag Nation. We read library books (Sarah Morton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl; Tapenum’s Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times; 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving; Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving), read about William Bradford, and utilized a few websites to try to gain a more accurate depiction of what life was like in 1621 surrounding the holiday we now know as Thanksgiving.
After spending weeks preparing for our trip, I felt as though I had done a decent job accurately educating our children on the true history of Thanksgiving.
When we first arrived at Plimoth Plantation, it felt like any other touristy place complete with security checks and long lines, but once we walked inside, we were immediately greeted by a man who informed us that he and others were not paid actors but there representing many different Native Nations. Our children sat inside a real wetu (Wampanoag’s didn’t live in teepees like we were always taught), saw canoe making, learned about the daily chores of the Wampanoag children, and later walked through the small homes in which the early settlers lived on the other side of the property.
This hands-on experience was truly special, and as a new homeschooling mom, I felt like we had arrived!
Native Americans: Past and Present
Several months later we attended a Native American celebration in our neighborhood, and when our children saw the men and women in ceremonial clothing, they had questions. I told them these were Native Americans who came to our neighborhood to celebrate and share their culture and customs with our community.
My son looked confused and shockingly exclaimed, “There are still Native Americans alive today???” Major homeschool fail!!! I realized that in our teaching of the history of Native Nations and the tenuous relationship between those in power, I had failed to teach about the resilience and continued strength of Native Nations today.
Did you know there are over 550 federally recognized Indigenous nations comprising nearly three million people?
So this year for National American Indian Heritage Month, I have really been seeking out more resources for our family and have once again been so grateful for several social media groups who have shared stories and literature that have been incredibly helpful.
Celebration or Day of Mourning
I recently learned that many Native Americans do not celebrate Thanksgiving but instead gather for a National Day of Mourning for the millions of Native Peoples who died as both a direct and indirect result of European settlers. Estimations suggest there were anywhere between 10 million to 112 million Indigenous Peoples living on what is now U.S. territory in 1492. By 1900, the number had reduced to less than 300,000. Native Peoples suffered from land dispossession, disease brought by Europeans, oppression, and blatant racism.
For the majority of my life I have not thought twice about the fact that I celebrate Thanksgiving while others observe the day in remembrance and mourning for the oppression, displacement, cultural suppression, and genocide of millions of Native Americans.
How do we as followers of Christ approach a holiday tradition that celebrates an idea that is far from the unjust and oppressive historical and current reality for Native Nations?
There are still current injustices surrounding Native Nations such as voter suppression, poverty, and the continued threat of land displacement. Have you ever considered the land you call home used to be inhabited by a Native Nation?
Here is an interactive map where you type your address, and it shows the Native Nation(s) that formerly occupied your land. This can be a difficult conversation to have with your family, and no, we cannot erase the past. We can, however, be informed by and connected by our past as we strive to do better.
There are also events to celebrate! Debra Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna) and Sharice Davids (Ho Chunk) recently became the first Native American women elected to Congress!
I know for many of you this week will be spent grocery shopping, cooking, gathering with family and friends, and lots of delicious food (don’t forget to wear stretchy pants!), but I hope that we can find the time to have age-appropriate discussions with our children about the history of Thanksgiving and Native Nations today.
We can observe Thanksgiving in a way that attempts to encourage our children to be generous and grateful while recognizing and honoring the history and culture of Native Nations, both past and present.
You may be like me and feeling a bit conflicted about this holiday, but I think for now we can educate, read books, and have honest conversations with our children.
We can foster gratitude for what we have inherited, an appreciation for the resiliency and strength of Native Nations, and encourage a call for the justice of others.
“What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8
I asked our neighborhood librarian for some book suggestions and have listed several to share with you below. You may also want to check out this blog that focuses on elevating American Indians in Children’s Literature:
- North American Indian Nations by Linda Lowry
- *This is a series with each book focused on Native Nations based on regions of the country.
- First Peoples of North America: The People and Culture of the Cree (also the Apache, Crow, Delaware, Huron, Inuit, and Menominee) by Raymond Bial
- *Our 9-year-old loved the book about the Cree Nation and begged to check out the others.
- All the Stars in the Sky: Native Stories from the Heavens by C.J. Taylor
- The Return of the Buffaloes by Paul Goble
- How Raven Stole the Sun by Maria Williams
- Rabbits Snow Dance by James & Joseph Bruchac
- Rocks Not Happy in Sacks by Gilbert Walking Bull and Sally Moore
- You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith
- The Christmas Coat: Memoires of My Sioux Childhood by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
- *This one I checked out for myself and still haven’t read through it yet!
I have also included a couple websites that give resources to use for your own families or classrooms.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.