Ask Kids and Race: What Do I Tell My Kid About Thanksgiving?

By Katharine Strange

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Dear Kids & Race,

My preschooler is asking questions about Thanksgiving. What should I tell him?


This is a great question. When most of us were growing up, we learned a lot of inaccurate stories about Native Americans. We learned, for example, that the Pilgrims were good, albeit hapless, people fleeing religious persecution who survived their first winter in Massachusetts due to friendship with the Wampanoag, most notably Squanto.

Stories like this give us warm, fuzzy feelings, but they are not true. (Check out this list of 11 first Thanksgiving myths for more info.) I think about my own upbringing in Montana, where we learned about Sacagawea helping Lewis and Clark every single year, but next to nothing about the military campaigns of the US government against the Sioux, Nez Perce, and Crow.

This is not what Thanksgiving looked like.

This is not what Thanksgiving looked like.

These are the problems with how Native American history is taught in many schools:

  • It reduces many different cultures and peoples into one group (Just like Italian people are different from Swedish people, Native American tribes are distinct and unique.)

  • It focuses solely on the history of Native American people and not Native Americans today (Native people are not extinct, thinking about this only in terms of history lets us off the hook for working toward justice)

  • It de-centers Native American voices, leaning instead on stereotypes and tropes, such as in the picture above

  • It lies about America’s colonization by White people (again, letting White people off the hook for taking action)

A Canadian textbook which has  since been recalled  after public outcry.

A Canadian textbook which has since been recalled after public outcry.

While it’s understandable that we don’t want to talk about genocide on a holiday, teaching kids comforting lies about the first Thanksgiving is clearly not the answer.

So, what to say?

For a preschool-aged child, a great way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to focus on teaching Native history. Learn about the tribes who live in your area and what sort of holidays they celebrate.

Many native tribes have their own rituals around giving thanks for food. Columbia City Preschool of Arts and Culture (Kids & Race’s sister preschool) teaches about Cranberry Day, the Wampanoag tradition of giving thanks for the cranberry harvest. They also utilize the “Since Time Immemorial Tribal Sovereignty Early Learning Curriculum” for Washington state students.

For older kids, it’s worth talking to them about what they’ve learned about Native Americans in school. If your child’s school is teaching them inaccurate and racist history, send a letter or email. (The fantastic “Decolonizing Thanksgiving” has sample letters and MANY resources.) You can read a book with your child which centers Native American stories, such as A Boy Named Beckoning, The Christmas Coat, or A Native American Thought of It: Amazing Inventions and Innovations. (All available through the Seattle Public Library.)

Wampanoag children celebrate cultural traditions at a powwow. (Image credit:  New Bedford Guide

Wampanoag children celebrate cultural traditions at a powwow. (Image credit: New Bedford Guide

Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to cultivate gratitude and respect for others. We don’t need to spend the holiday feeling guilty about our privilege. Instead, we can choose to honor the stories and teachings of various Native American peoples. We can be thankful for what we have, and at the same time work towards making things fairer for all people.