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Teaching Thanksgiving


Many of us have celebrated or will celebrate Thanksgiving at school like this.

MICHELLE PORTERA: You make the Native American headdress, and you make a medallion with your Native American name on it and put beads on your shirt and make all those fun things - and the turkey activities. And then you would have a day where you dressed as pilgrims and Native Americans.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michelle Portera of Mississippi has been teaching for 18 years. She loved planning those crafts for her first-grade students. But there was a nagging feeling.

PORTERA: I didn't feel like we were teaching truth. If you really dig into the history, we know that Thanksgiving wasn't happy pilgrims and Indians sitting down one day to feast, and that was that. I mean, there were so much more heavier things that surrounded it. It didn't feel right anymore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving can be fraught. Some prefer to observe a day of mourning. Lessons in school that gloss over the history can perpetuate inaccuracies and stereotypes.

Andrea Riley-Mukavetz is a college professor who covers Thanksgiving and Native American history in her classes. She's also Ojibwe and a mom of two young kids, so she's thought a lot about how children learn about Thanksgiving.

ANDREA RILEY-MUKAVETZ: I also think about how we can be honest with our young people at a very early age. I don't think it's appropriate to scare our young people talking about genocide and things like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Riley-Mukavetz says, oftentimes, teachers lack the resources to navigate this tricky subject. In her younger child's classroom, the history isn't being taught at all, in favor of lessons about kindness and gratitude.

RILEY-MUKAVETZ: It's about teaching people to be nice, but that's still not what happened. You know, that moment of giving thanks between the Wampanoag and the pilgrims or the Puritans - right? - that was a moment of mutually beneficial peace. And then right after that, more horror happened.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says there are ways to teach Thanksgiving appropriately. First, be honest and direct.

RILEY-MUKAVETZ: You know, here is what happened. This was deliberate and intentional, and it was used to take claim of the land. But also, give examples of how Tribal Nations people are surviving and engaged in cultural continuance right now. It could also be a story about learning how to value the land. Tribal Nations people were celebrating Thanksgiving far before the settlers because it was harvest time.

MOLLY TILL: My name is Molly Till, and I live in Colorado Springs, Colo. And I teach kindergarten.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Till has been teaching for 13 years and knows she's taught a lot of mistruths by only giving a cursory history lesson the week before the holiday. After she started working with a Native American colleague, Till took her suggestion to expand the curriculum.

TILL: Now I spend the whole month of November talking about the different Native American groups. I make it a point to tell them and show them books and videos that are current and have Native American representation so they don't think they were just in history. And then the week before Thanksgiving, we talk about how the colonists came over. And I call them colonists instead of pilgrims.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Till says online resources, including one through the Smithsonian, have helped her dispel a lot of the common myths about Thanksgiving.

TILL: The big one that kids don't - it kind of shocks them is that the Native Americans were not invited. The colonists didn't go out and say, hey, you helped us plant corn and survive a year. Come - I mean, that's the story I heard - that they were like, Squanto, you're so great. Come on over and have Thanksgiving with us. And that is not at all how it happened.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Molly Till says the great thing about teaching young kids is that they're open-minded and willing to absorb the information.

Andrea Riley-Mukavetz agrees. She says kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for.

RILEY-MUKAVETZ: I think it's OK for us to have uncomfortable conversations that will put us in a place where we can both grow and reflect on our history and try to find ways to learn from the mistakes, to move on and do better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Riley-Mukavetz has these book recommendations for anyone who's interested in tackling Native American history with kids - "Jingle Dancer" by Cynthia Smith, "When We Were Alone" by David Robertson and "The Lesser Blessed" by Richard Van Camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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