How to talk about Thanksgiving with your children

One of the most beloved and sacred American holidays is undoubtedly Thanksgiving. Families across the country celebrate by uniting for a day of feasting and togetherness, taking time to count their blessings and connect with history. However, historians now agree that the stories that we tell about “The First Thanksgiving” bear little resemblance to what really happened more than 400 years ago, during a time when Indigenous people were experiencing extraordinary upheaval as settlers began arriving on this continent. Context, detail, and perspective are missing from those traditional tales, and to repeat them to our children perpetuates a myth and casually sidelines the near-extinction of Native people. 

We can help create a more meaningful and reflective Thanksgiving for ourselves and our families.  When we make an effort to tell the true story of Thanksgiving, give our children a more thorough understanding of Indigenous history and the living Native groups who still survive, and highlight acts of service and generosity, we reinforce the values of scholarship and understanding. We show our children that it’s possible to acknowledge painful truths about the past while taking steps to do better in the future.

Children can handle the truth.

Some adults, even educators, shy away from attempting to tell the true story about Thanksgiving, claiming that children aren’t able to process and understand its complexities. In fact, children are capable of hearing and understanding complex stories when they are given appropriate explanations and contextual information. It’s possible, therefore, to expand the stories we tell about Thanksgiving beyond the overly simplistic narratives that are traditionally told. 

Chief Ousamequin shares a peace pipe with Plymouth Governor John Carver. California State Library

It is essential to provide context about the Indigenous nations who inhabited this continent for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers. Being specific about the names and characteristics of different nations is essential in order to avoid misunderstanding and harmful stereotypes. It will take more than one or two discussions to help impart information appropriately, but taking the time to establish a better basic knowledge of Indigenous Americans will help children contextualize the Thanksgiving story and show more empathy for its actors.

Bring the people out of the past.

It is important to stress that Indigenous nations are not only part of the past, but continue to survive and maintain their languages, cultures, and heritage throughout the country. You can help your children build knowledge about Native cultures. The Lenape people have lived on the land in our part of the country for thousands of years; currently the State of New Jersey recognizes the ​Ramapough Lenape Nation, The Powhatan Renape Nation and the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation. The latter, in particular, has an informative website and hosts occasional gatherings which outsiders may attend to observe and learn. More central to the Thanksgiving story are the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). By learning about these groups and understanding how they fit into modern society, children can make stronger connections to the past.

Connect with the land.

The National Park Service has good resources for people looking to connect their knowledge of Native history with our national park land. You can also experiment with this app, which allows you to enter a zip code and find out which Native groups once occupied the land there. Many of our New Jersey State parks are on Lenape land.

Taking time to get back to nature is not only good for the mind and body, but will also offer the opportunity to acknowledge the generations of Native people who were the caretakers of the land we use. During a nature walk or hike, discuss natural resources your children notice around them that might have been used by Native people in the past. This is also an excellent entry to a discussion of the gratitude we feel when out in nature: the trees that provide oxygen, shade, and shelter, the plants that provide food and medicine, rivers and lakes that provide water, and the sun that provides warmth.

Visit museums.

Making time to visit exhibits and learn more about the various Native American nations within our lands can lead to richer discussions at home. The National Museum of the American Indian has branches in New York and Washington DC. There are hundreds of museums in the US dedicated to preserving and educating about Indigenous cultures. (Here is one non-comprehensive list.) Many museums also have interactive online exhibits for learning from home. The NMAI features the Native Knowledge 360° site, which offers recorded and live webinars and other interactive materials for older children to learn at their own pace.

Arizona Museum of Natural History

Read and discuss books that spotlight Indigenous experiences.

Through stories, we become conscious of seeing the world through others’ eyes, developing empathy and understanding. Choose books that include and highlight Native peoples’ perspectives, not those in which token Indigenous characters are portrayed as two-dimensional or incomprehensible. Indigenous scholar Dr. Debbie Reese has an excellent blog reviewing childrens’ literature that features Native characters. Social Justice Books also has a nice compilation of books for everyone from pre-K to adult. As children get older, you can work with them to question and analyze stories portraying Native people. Ask them “whose story does this book tell?” and “what does the author show us about each character?” to help them understand how some stories may misrepresent certain groups of people. As a bonus, fostering these critical thinking skills will teach your children to think for themselves and better prepare them to confront misinformation in the wider world. 

Build a tradition of service and giving. 

This time of reflection and gratitude is the perfect moment to think about ways to give back. Instilling the values of service and generosity in our children helps to raise their awareness about the blessings in their lives and the needs of others in the community. There are endless ways you can have a positive impact, such as organizing a litter clean-up, volunteering at a food pantry, or preparing toiletry kits for homeless shelters. Encouraging children to choose from their own clothes, toys, or food to donate can also reinforce the value of sharing and kindness. You might opt to funnel donations towards causes that promote Indigenous education and wellbeing, in honor of Native American Heritage Month. 

We believe that it is possible to celebrate and enjoy this time while also holding space to honor the true history behind the holiday and the people who have been marginalized in the narrative for too long.

We can do more to educate our children about the Indigenous nations that Europeans encountered and interacted with, who are still alive and active today. Additionally, promoting themes of service and generosity can counterbalance the idea of overconsumption that is prevalent at this time of year. Together, we can create new traditions of understanding, growth, giving, and gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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