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How To Explain Native American Heritage Day To Your Kids

Three Native experts tell Scary Mommy how to honor the day with kids of all ages.

Originally Published: 
A woman shows her children how the Pawnee, a tribe of Native Americans, grind corn at the Field Muse...
Joel Lerner/Xinhua via Getty Images

As we reckon with the whitewashed versions of American history we've been taught, it's crucial to help your kids of all ages understand the true meaning behind some of the holidays we celebrate, such as Thanksgiving. And it's impossible to talk about Thanksgiving without mentioning Native American Heritage Day, a civil holiday recognized the Friday following Thanksgiving as a day to honor the many contributions of Native peoples across the United States, as Native/Indigenous culture experts tell Scary Mommy.

If you're hoping to honor the many Native/Indigenous people in the U.S. against the commercialized lens of Thanksgiving, keep reading for ways to keep your discussion truthful, culturally respectful, and enlightening, whether you've got littles, teens, or kiddos in between.

What is Native American Heritage Day?

While it might be new to you, the celebration is long overdue for the generations of Native/Indigenous Americans who have been fighting to have their roots, cultures, traditions, and heritage honored. First signed into law in 2008, President Obama signed "The Native American Heritage Day Resolution" in 2009, publicly recognizing the day for the first time, as Jamie Schulze (Northern Cheyenne/Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate), acting director for Southwest Association of American Indian Art's (SWAIA), tells Scary Mommy.

The celebration stands in stark contrast to the commercialization of Thanksgiving and Black Friday, as Lauren Driscoll (Ren), a Michigan FoodCorps service member who works with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and other Indigenous communities, explains.

"As many Native folks see Thanksgiving day itself as a National Day of Mourning, the holiday provides both Natives and non-Natives with a day to pay tribute to Native history, culture, land, and much more," says Driscoll. "This is also a common time that Native communities celebrate the harvest season, and thus a time for thanksgiving and celebration. With similar goals of celebrating and honoring Indigenous peoples and history, Native American Heritage Month has been celebrated every November since 1990."

Driscoll mentions one crucial caveat, noting that "not every person is a fan of Native American Heritage Day being the day after Thanksgiving — set on 'Black Friday,' this day of greed and capitalism directly contradicts the beliefs, cultures, and traditions of many Native communities, and is overlooked by news stories of sales, crowds, and shopping."

Helping Your Child Understand

Regardless of your children's ages, "It's important to acknowledge that the common story of Thanksgiving is a myth that perpetuates harmful stereotypes and overlooks the maltreatment and violence of Native people at the hands of the English colonizers, or Pilgrims," says Driscoll. "Kids can understand fairness and justice very well. Depending on the age of the child, you can then explain that English colonizers intruded on Native American land and proclaimed it as theirs despite thousands of years of Native peoples living there, mocked Native folks for how they grew food, stole their stockpiles of food and ate it for themselves, brought disease from Europe that Native people had never encountered (sickening and killing their communities), and even took Native children and adults from families to enslave them in the international slave trade."

"The most important part for kids to recognize is that the First Americans — the Native communities — were here first, have been here for thousands of years, and have been treated with disdain and violence since first intrusion by the English," she adds. "Let them know that the commonly told story of Pilgrims and Natives eating a nice meal together overlooks the theft of land, loss of culture, and genocide at the hands of the English, and not only doesn't tell the whole story but isn't told from the perspective of Native people. While younger children may not understand the true history of Thanksgiving, they can understand the Native communities that were here first — the Wampanoag people who saved the lives of the Pilgrims — and they can understand the unfair treatment Native peoples continue to experience. They can understand the food that was eaten by Native people during that time, to be grateful for the food we eat, our family, and the land we're on, and to treat our lands and food systems with the same respect, care, and sense of sustainability that Native folks have always stewarded."

If your child is confused as to why Americans continue to celebrate Thanksgiving despite its dark history, Driscoll suggests shifting the perspective of your own family celebrations. "To honor the harvest season, to spend time with family, to show gratitude, to honor the land we're on, to celebrate the Indigenous people and history that led to us being able to have a meal together. The fact that Native communities are still standing strong is an enormous act of resilience and power, and it's important to recognize their survival and strength despite years of violence and continued discrimination today."

You also don't have to make kids feel like they've done something bad or wrong, adds Yatibaey Evans (Ahtna, Athabascan Alaska Native), creative producer of PBS Kids' Molly of Denali. "I think this comes from a fear that the truth or sharing the perspectives or injustices of others will somehow shame kids," she shares. "The principles behind the holiday — pausing to give thanks and be grateful for what you have, sharing with others, and honoring traditions — are not bad and important to share with kids."

Addressing Misconceptions and Stereotypes

Since some schools neglect to paint a complete picture of Native history, your child might have questions about stereotypes and mistruths, notes Schulze. She points out that "Native Americans and non-Natives are very much the same. Native American students go to school and are trying to learn similar things."

Adds Driscoll: "A huge misconception is that Native folks only live in our history books and in the past — there are still plenty of recognized and unrecognized tribes today that continue to celebrate their history, culture, foodways, traditions, languages, religions, and much more. Indigenous communities hold a diverse, detailed, and extraordinary knowledge about agriculture, science, our natural world, sustainably stewarding land, politics, health and medicine, and so much more. Indigenous knowledge and science should be upheld and taught just as much as Western science and education. Native knowledge tends to be looked down upon or not viewed as equally important as other knowledge, but it's critical we don't continue this misconception of 'less than.'"

How to Honor the Day Together

"There are countless ways that families can honor Native people on Thanksgiving, Native American Heritage Day, and beyond," notes Driscoll. "A good place to start is being knowledgeable about the land you're on — this website helps you find out what Indigenous Nations, tribes, and treaties exist on the land you live on, work on, and go to school on. Take time to research the Native people and history of your area, the languages spoken, and any current festivals, art shows, museum exhibitions, or other forms of education you can engage with."

Driscoll's favorite way to honor Indigenous communities is to cook and eat decolonized dishes using recipes from Indigenous chefs. This cookbook is a great place to start. "Make your meals using food grown locally to you and from farms and businesses that equitably care for the land, their employees, and their communities," she adds.

"You can also read books by Indigenous authors, support Native-owned businesses and organizations, and listen to Native music," says Driscoll. "For younger kids, I highly recommend Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun's Thanksgiving Story by Danielle Greendeer, which is written by a Wampanoag woman. As a family, you can read the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address Greetings to the Natural World. The book Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults by Monique Gray Smith has an amazing section on Thanksgiving and is accessible for all ages of readers."

Driscoll continues, "At school, ask your kids' teachers how they teach about Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month, request that they teach historically accurate information, and ask them to provide information to students about the Native land they're learning on and to discuss the history of Indigenous peoples, tribes, and Nations in your area and beyond."

Evans sums it up perfectly, recommending that families "remember that respect and understanding of Indigenous culture should not begin and end in November — it should be something that should be understood and celebrated all year round."

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