Teaching about Thanksgiving in a multicultural society

Annie Shew, a first-grader at Kennedy School, reacts after realizing she forgot to draw glasses on a picture of her brother in her “I Am Thankful For” book Tuesday at the school. At right is her teacher, Rebecca Hout. Students were studying Thanksgiving and making drawings that will be distributed to Meals on Wheels clients on Thanksgiving Day on Thursday.

Children in Rebecca Hout’s classroom spent much of this week doing the same thing schoolchildren throughout America were doing: learning about the Thanksgiving tradition and holiday.

Hout, who teaches first grade at Kennedy School, had her pupils make picture books describing the things in their life for which they were thankful.

They read those famous short passages from the diary of William Bradford, leader of the Puritan colonists in New England, describing that legendary first Thanksgiving feast in 1621.

Some of them also made Thanksgiving decorations that will be delivered to area seniors through Meals on Wheels.

But one thing her students didn’t do was to dress up like Indians and Pilgrims and play out the characters that have long been part of the American psyche.

“I remember doing that,” Hout said, recalling her own education, “and I remember wearing a Pilgrim costume, and it was fun, but it was characterizing a culture. I think it teaches kids to stereotype Indians. The whole story is so complicated, we don’t get into it that much. It’s just too much for first grade.”

Hout isn’t alone in believing that lessons about the Thanksgiving tradition need a more multicultural approach.

In many schools, it may still be common for children to make buckskin costumes out of brown paper grocery sacks, or to fashion feathered headbands out of construction paper and glue. But increasingly, many teachers are finding that those kinds of cultural stereotypes, especially about Native Americans, are no longer relevant, or particularly useful, for today’s students.

“We do talk about the history of it,” Hout said. “We talk about that first Thanksgiving story and how it’s a cute little story, but maybe it didn’t really happen that way.”

In truth, historians say, the Wampanoag Indians who lived in the area in what is now Massachusetts that became Plymouth Plantation didn’t wear buckskin clothing, nor did they wear feather headdresses.

Jennifer Attocknie, coordinator of Native American student services for the Lawrence school district, says those are popular images that serve to reduce and distill native culture into a simple, homogeneous picture.

“There’s a common stereotype that we’re all the same,” said Attocknie, who grew up in a Comanche family in Oklahoma. “There are over 500 different federally recognized tribes in the United States. That’s not including the nonfederally recognized tribes. So there are hundreds of languages and cultures and relationships and everything.”

Lawrence schools may have more diversity in its Native American population than most, in part because the community is home to Haskell Indian Nations University, which attracts both students and faculty from a wide cross-section of Native American cultures. Attocknie said there are about 580 Native American students in the district, or nearly 5 percent of total enrollment.

Attocknie has been trying in recent years to convince Lawrence teachers to teach about Thanksgiving differently and to move away from those stereotypes.

“I think that they want to get things correct,” she said of teachers in the district. “So either they avoid anything to do with American Indians and Native Americans and indigenous cultures, for fear of getting it wrong, or they cling to this romantic stereotype that they experienced as a child and have the positive feelings that they remember as a child.”

Attocknie said that in her family and culture there always was a certain indifference about the Thanksgiving holiday.

“I asked my grandma about it once and she said, ‘Well, we’re all off of work today, so we might as well hang out.’ And I think that’s pretty common from my friends and my family.”

But Hout said she experienced it differently. Her mother’s family was part of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, but she grew up not knowing much about her own Native American heritage.

“My mom was taught to try to pass as white,” Hout said. “She came from that. She came from (a background that said) you don’t really talk about it, that it’s viewed negative to be seen as native.”

Paul Kelton, associate professor and chairman of the history department at Kansas University, says “origin myths” like the ones surrounding Thanksgiving are common in most cultures, and at times can serve a useful purpose in unifying people around common values and ethics.

But he says they can also be harmful, “in that they inhibit people from asking hard questions.”

“I think that mythologies that obscure a very complex reality and tidy up with a very sanitized version are very destructive,” he said. “Any time that you obscure a very violent and brutal history, you don’t encourage people to learn why that happened.”

Kelton said: “The idea that somehow what defined the founding of America were native peoples and Europeans coming together in a very friendly manner — that was an exception. And if the exception becomes how we understand our past, then we’re really not understanding our past, and that’s dangerous in my book.”

In Rebecca Hout’s class, students don’t spend time learning that aspect of European-Native American relations either. As she said, it’s a bit much for first-grade students.

But they do seem to know intuitively that Thanksgiving is a big deal.

“They’re super excited,” she said. “They all talk about turkey. It’s turned into a time to eat and a time to be with family.”