What Native American parents tell their own kids about Thanksgiving — and what they want others to know

Laura Clark (center) with one of her children and her mom. Clark is half Muscogee (Creek) and Cherokee from her mother’s side of the family. (Photo courtesy of Laura Clark)

When many people think about Thanksgiving, chances are family time, turkey, pumpkin pie and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade come to mind. But for some Native American families, the holiday can bring mixed emotions. And for Native American parents in particular, they may find themselves having to counter the inaccurate Thanksgiving narrative that many kids are taught at school.

‘I don't think I was taught any differently than what most children are taught today’

When Laura Clark was growing up in Oklahoma, she was taught the familiar story of the first Thanksgiving. “It was a happy meal that the Pilgrims and 'the Indians' shared together, and it was one big happy setting,” the mom of two, who is half Muscogee (Creek) and Cherokee from her mother’s side of the family, tells Yahoo Life. “It was referred to as the ‘Pilgrims’ and ‘the Indians,’ and it wasn’t even broken down by tribe — and we have more than 500 tribes in the U.S.”

Quinn Lemmers

Mom of two Brooke Pinkham, who is Niimiipuu (Nez Perce) and grew up with the Yakama Nation in Washington, had a similar experience growing up. “I don't think I was taught any differently than what most children are taught today — the typical story of the friendly interaction between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag,” Pinkham tells Yahoo Life. Although Pinkham, who is the staff director for the Center for Indian Law & Policy at Seattle University School of Law, attended public school, she was in a tribal community and was “still being taught this narrative.”

Clark, who is the deputy editor of Yahoo’s In the Know and founder of a Native American moms Facebook group, says that having her own relatives “break stuff down for me” about the complex history surrounding Thanksgiving helped counter the inaccurate narratives she was being taught in school. She also points out that growing up in Oklahoma, Native American history is “more a part of the conversation,” adding, “Even if you’re not Native, there’s an awareness there that I don't think exists in a lot of places. The tragedy wasn’t swept under the rug; it was explained. It was surprising finding out as an adult that it wasn’t the norm.”

Brooke Pinkham, who is Niimiipuu (Nez Perce) and a mother of two, has
Brooke Pinkham, who is Niimiipuu (Nez Perce) and a mother of two, has "intentional conversations" with her kids about the real history of Thanksgiving. (Photo: Chris Joseph Kalinko) (Chris Joseph Kalinko)

For Pinkham, her family also spurred her on to learn more about the history of the holiday and her people. She recalls her uncle hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for her family while she was still in college. He turned to Pinkham and said, “And I would like Brooke to tell us about why Thanksgiving is controversial,’” she recalls. “And I looked at him like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ So I forced myself to learn about it.”

Pinkham soon found out there was “a disconnect” between what she had been taught and the true history of Thanksgiving. “You're still being fed these half truths,” she says. So Pinkham focused on “educating myself about the issue and around my own community and my own people,” and learned more about “the miseducation around Native people and how stereotypes were harmful,” she says.

How Native American parents talk to their children about Thanksgiving

Some Native American parents may find the cycle repeating itself and are helping their own children fill in any knowledge gaps and ensuring that lessons at school are historically and culturally accurate and authentic.

Renée Gokey, the student and teacher services coordinator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and a member of the Eastern Shawnee tribe, previously told Yahoo Life that, even though it was “difficult,” she brought up the topic of Thanksgiving lesson plans with her child’s teacher. “I’m one of the only Native American parents in the school,” Gokey said. “It was important for me to ask in a non-threatening way and provide ideas and support for them, but also ask critical questions of the curricula so our kids feel represented in more accurate and thoughtful ways.”

Clark, who has a 14-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, has also reached out to her children’s teachers and offered to give presentations about Native Americans at school. “I really make a point of letting them know there is someone who is really aware and who is going to be paying attention to how you’re presenting this, especially to my child,” she says. “It’s been positive and they welcome that.”

Laura Clark teaches her two children about their tribal heritage and views Thanksgiving as
Laura Clark teaches her two children about their tribal heritage and views Thanksgiving as "a time to come together" with family and friends. (Photo courtesy of Laura Clark) (Laura Clark)

While Pinkham, who has an 8-year-old and a 1-year-old, shares that her third grader hasn’t been taught the inaccurate narrative around Thanksgiving at school, she and her husband have talked to their son, saying: “‘Hey, there’s this holiday and here’s why it’s controversial.’ So we have intentional conversations around it, and here’s how we make it meaningful.”

Knowing that some of her son’s friends celebrate the holiday, Pinkham says, “We teach him not to be judgmental if Native people are celebrating. Here’s what your friends may have learned at Thanksgiving. I just don't want him to be surprised down the road like I was in college. You don’t want to be bitter. ‘Why wasn’t I told this earlier on?’”

Clark shares that she teaches her children about their tribal heritage, and she encourages their kids to ask questions about the historical narratives they’re being taught. “It’s important for them to question what happened, who was involved, who is telling these stories,” says Clark. “Is this from the Pilgrims’ point of view? Do we have any stories from the Wampanoag point of view? Is that out there in the textbooks, having the Native American point of view? What happened to the tribe after these so-called friendly encounters?”

How to celebrate Thanksgiving respectfully

For both Pinkham and Clark, it’s not about calling off Thanksgiving and forgoing celebrating with family and friends. For many Indigenous peoples, the idea of “thanksgiving” precedes the first Thanksgiving in 1621. In fact, the Wampanoag who helped the English settlers survive “were also a people for whom giving thanks was a part of daily life,” according to the National Museum of the American Indian.

Instead, Pinkham encourages everyone to “really know what the true history” of Thanksgiving is. “From there, you decide how you want to celebrate it or not celebrate it,” she says. “For me, that’s the only important thing. It’s however you want to continue as long as you don’t continue to be dishonest about it because it’s harmful.”

For Clark, she recommends that families learn more about Indigenous tribes in the U.S. — not just on the holiday, but year-round. “Native Americans don't just exist on Thanksgiving,” she says. “Each tribe has such a rich history. Their own languages and ways they built houses or farmed. If there’s something to honor on Thanksgiving, I think it’s learning and honoring the tribes that exist here today.”

Like many families around Thanksgiving, Clark shares that she focuses on things to be grateful for. “What I teach my own children is that it’s a time to be thankful for our family, our friends and the people around us,” she says. “It’s a time to come together — not a time to rehash history lessons that aren’t exactly true.”

As Clark puts it: “That’s something all people can value: family, friendship, and gratitude.”

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