3 Ways to Teach Young Children About Thanksgiving – An Indigenous Perspective

By Alexis Bunten, Anthony Perry, and Danielle Greendeer

As more Americans become aware of the ongoing effects of stolen land and slavery in the United States, many are becoming increasingly concerned about Thanksgiving. Most Americans cherish the turkey and family get-togethers that mark this holiday, but many recognize that the story didn’t turn out so well for Native Americans. Some Native Americans consider Thanksgiving a Day of Mourning, but many of us have conflicted feelings about it.

As authors of the children’s book Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story, we strove to create a story that gets ahead of the stereotypes that are so often children’s first exposure to this narrative. Our take on Thanksgiving is that the holiday can be celebrated in a way that shows gratitude to the plants and animals native to North America (see 3 ways to Decolonize Thanksgiving) while not shying away from the true history of this country.

Image of the cover of Keepunumuk courtesy of Garry Meeches Sr. and Charlesbridge Press

As parents, we are also aware of children’s social and emotional development stages. We were very thoughtful in how we introduced concepts and themes around the holiday to our children who were of preschool age when we started writing this book. The easiest way to introduce Thanksgiving to young children is to read Keepunumuk to them.

After that, try the following three easy Native American-inspired suggestions to help young children to integrate the lessons introduced in Keepunumuk.

1. Connect to Nature

Try to make a Thanksgiving meal with food indigenous to North America, and have your children help pick and cook the produce. Danielle is a seed keeper and has helped to revive the Wampanoag traditional corn (see A Thanksgiving Lesson in a Handful of Corn). You can serve the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash — and explain how the sisters help each other to grow strong and healthy. This year, Alexis is growing the Three Sisters from heirloom seeds for the second time. Spending time in the garden with her daughter is a way for them to connect with nature by being outside and caring for the plants as they watch them grow. Tony is also raising the Three Sisters in his garden with his family in England, using seeds of plants raised by his Chickasaw ancestors.

Here’s a Three Sisters curricular resource and craft written to Kindergarten standards, but these could be easily modified for other grades and contexts.

Author Danielle Greendeer with the King Philip Corn

2. Help Others

We will never know the “real reason” why the Wampanoag decided to help the Separatists, now known as Pilgrims, to grow their indigenous foods. It is possible that they thought an alliance with the settlers would strengthen their position politically vis-à-vis other Native groups in the area after their population was decimated by disease. They may also have simply wanted to help others in need. Perhaps it was a little bit of both. Regardless, the theme of helping others lies at the heart of Thanksgiving, no matter what background you come from. Make a new tradition by asking your young children to “help at least one other person, plant, or animal” on the holiday. Ask them to share at the table who they helped and how that made them feel.

3. Honor Elders

One of the things that we love most about Thanksgiving is gathering with family across generations. The dominant American culture has divided families into nuclear units, dividing families by generations. However, for more than 99.9% of human history, our species has lived in intergenerational groups, where elders are revered for their knowledge and help in taking care of children. Ask your young children, “Who is an elder?” and “Why is it important to honor elders?” and your heart will be warmed by their responses. Have them make a present or put on a play for an elder in your life or community.

Here’s a crafting and play activity developed for 1st graders that can be adapted for other grades and contexts.

Author Danielle Greendeer’s mother Nokomis with her grandchildren, who inspired Keepunumuk. Photo Courtesy of Danielle Greendeer

More Helpful Resources

The activities shared in this article and many more can be found at the Bioneers Indigeneity Curriculum webpage. The early grade Thanksgiving curricula have been developed to Massachusetts State Standards and take into account social, emotional, and cognitive learning as well as different learning styles. All of the curricula has been created by Native content developers.

To learn how to teach these resources, check out our pre-recorded Thanksgiving Curriculum webinar. For more Thanksgiving resources in general, check out the Bioneers Decolonizing Thanksgiving Page.

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