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Decolonizing Thanksgiving Is An Oxymoron – Kids Books Dismantling The Myth of a ‘First Thanksgiving’
[Image description: Illustration from ‘We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga’ by Traci Sorell & Frane Lessac, “depicting what looks like a family of eight people around a table for a meal, including two elderly people (grey/white hair, one of them balding on top), one baby in a high chair, two children on a bench, one of them feeding a cat between them. The people all have light brown skin, and other than the two elderly people, they all have black hair. They are wearing a variety of differently coloured clothes (blue, yellow, green, red, grey, orange), and the man standing next to the table is wearing an orange apron over his shirt and pants, with yellow swirls on it. On the back of the chair of one of the elderly people, there’s a hat with two feathers in it. There’s a framed picture on the wall in the background showing two people together.” / Gratitude to Charlotte Holzke for the lovely image description.]
In his post: Teach your kids the truth of Thanksgiving – modeling generosity and gratitude all year long – but don’t whitewash the violent history of colonization.
The Thanksgiving myth is based in theft and greed.
We want Thanksgiving to be a celebration of gratitude and generosity, a holiday celebrating diversity and togetherness.
But can we honestly do that if we’re celebrating the tragedy and despair of people we continue to harm?
We have no right to stay on this land without taking responsibility for what we’ve broken, and taking action to repair it.
My family still reaps the benefits of showing up on these shores with light skin and settler expectations, as European and Asian immigrants. Even if my ancestors aren’t the colonists who stole Wampanoag food stores and ravaged the graves of their children, my family is still complicit in the oppression of Indigenous Americans.
We wrestle with teaching my kids about the messy network of past and present injustice. We try to fit that into a vision of what we want for the future – a country that values immigrants, and inclusion.
On the 4th Thursday of November, we teach our kids to respect the people who stewarded this land before us, our obligations toward the Indigenous people still here, and to welcome those who have still yet to arrive.
It’s a lot to ask of parents – doing the daily work it takes to get dinner on the table, trying to grow into the people we want to be, and setting a better example for our kids.
I still don’t know what this day should look like. I want to come together as a family. I want to reinforce the value of generosity, appreciation, and connection to the land.
But I don’t want to erase our history or pretend this violence is over. It’s not.
Over the years, I wondered if it was possible to decolonize the holiday we settlers call Thanksgiving? After listening to Indigenous people with lifetimes of experience and sorrow- I’ve come to accept that this impossible.
Why are teaching kids that history doesn’t count until white people show up?
The doctrine that ours was the ‘first’ Thanksgiving is ridiculous. The Wampanoag people have been practicing a prayer of thanksgiving every day, (+ Algonkians have observed six Thanksgiving festivals each year) for thousands of years before Separatists came to the shores of what we currently call Massachusetts.
The one our kids are learning about in school was most certainly not the first.
We need to retire the white-centered holiday of Thanksgiving. This holiday erases and condones the damage we’ve done by coming to this land and continuing to occupy it.
After 350 years watching setter colonists give thanks for genocide against Indigenous people, Wampanoag leader Wamsutta initiated the first National Day of Mourning in 1970.
Continuing to observe a Thanksgiving with boisterous celebration (followed by rampant greed and disposable consumerism the next day) on the 4th Thursday of each November condones the damage we’ve done by busting in and forcefully removing the first people of this land.
Understanding our history acknowledges the agony and shame of our present – a vital step in fixing what’s broken.
Can we (and should we), as the descendants of colonist & settler immigrants, maintain a sense of safety and belonging while acknowledging the harm we’re doing by living here?
As a multiracial family, I want a sense of home for my children. I want them to feel like they belong to a community who accepts them. I don’t want my children to grow up feeling the way I did – like aliens in their birth land with no where else to go, unwelcome and resented on every single square inch of this planet.
For many reasons, packing up and leaving the country isn’t an option for us. If we choose to stay, however, it’s our moral obligation to do so without causing further harm.
So for now, we read books. We read books about our history that break our hearts. We focus on gratitude for what we’ve inherited. And responsibility for what we need to pay back. All of these, together, show us ways to heal the future.
A note on boosting Indigenous voices:
As a settler, I get very nervous about recommending books on Indigenous history & heritage. I was born and raised in the Boston area, where the Thanksgiving myth, ‘pilgrim’ pride, and erasure of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe continues to this day. My classmates were proud descendants of Mayflower settlers and our high school mascot was a slaver ship. (Seriously.)
This is way outside my lane. But – it also gives me access to an audience that wouldn’t ordinarily pay attention to this stuff.
I could stay safe and silent, while less cautious parents blunder forth, spewing cheery Thanksgiving myths and Indigenous stereotypes that directly harm modern Indigenous people. That seems like a cowardly choice.
I chose the books below because they create an accessible bridge for my kids to start learning about the history of history and contemporary life for people whose heritage spans far beyond our arrival.
These books span cultures beyond US borders, since those same borders are byproduct of colonization. While I found, researched, and screened these books with my kids and processed them through our settler’s gaze, I tried to verify that my choices are respectful, accurate, and don’t cause more harm than good.
One of the ways I verified my choices was to check Deb Reese’s American Indians In Children’s Literature (with her permission) and invested in a copy of A Broken Flute by Doris Seale & Beverly Slapin. Check these resources out, as they go into great depth on problematic and recommended books that I don’t want to parrot here.
I’m trying to boost the best books, but not appropriate Indigenous research and voices. If I stray too far out of my lane, leave a comment with notes or corrections.
(Thanks to Monica R. for pointing out that our title was incomplete – I had assumed the title ‘Decolonizing Thanksgiving’ was a brain-teaser, but for new readers, we need to spell out how decolonizing a white institution is an oxymoron.)
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The Impact Of Colonization On Indigenous People
- Crazy Horse’s Vision – The moderately violent massacre scene in this story gave our family lots to unpack and discuss. The story is also fantastic for setting positive expectations for leadership.
- Shi-Shi-Etko – One girl’s experience being forced to attend a residential school. The sequel, Shin-Chi’s Canoe, is equally as good.
- Buffalo Bird Girl – A rare women’s history biography beyond Pocahontas & Sacagawea. Includes real photos and blends cultural details of life in for a Hidasta woman with the story of a real woman.
- The Gender Wheel – How discrimination and violence against intersex, two-spirit, nonbinary, and trans people is a byproduct of colonization.
- Not My Girl – The impact of residential schools on Indigenous children who have lost their language, culture, and family connections.
You might also like: Stop Lying To Your Kids About White Supremacy
Indigenous People & Sovereign Nations Are Still Here
- What’s My Superpower? – Normalizing modern Indigenous kids in a cute story that takes place against in Nunavut.
- My Heart Fills With Happiness – Celebrating modern connected with tradition.
- Wild Berries – Gathering, connecting with the land, elders, on an ordinary blueberry picking day.
- My Wounded Island – The impact of climate change and environmental racism on a young girl’s community – and the fear of cultural erasure that comes with it.
- We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga – Life through the seasons celebrating modern Cherokee traditions.
- We Sang You Home / Ka Kîweh Nikamôstamâtinân – In the style of of a lullaby for babies, celebrating the next generation in poetry that flew right over the heads of my (non-Indigenous) kids, but then again, we’re a very literal family and poetry is our kryptonite.
- When We Were Alone – In oral tradition, a grandmother passes on the story of how she and her brother persevered and continue to resist the miseducation and abuse she faced in residential schools as a child.
- Fry Bread – OH MY GOSH this book is perfection. Validating for multiracial Indigenous kids, with end notes clearing up misunderstandings about heritage, enrollment, and the disambiguation between Indigenous political status and race.
You might also like: Captivating Kids Stories To Recognize Privilege
Decolonizing & Restoring Connection To The Land
- The People Shall Continue – A brief, powerful statement of history and endurance through colonization & continued attacks.
- Beaver Steals Fire – I love this mainly for the foreword, which pulls back the Indigenous curtain a bit (rules set in place to keep stories safe from white distortion and appropriation) to help settlers understand the seasonality of stories and the byproduct of colonial arrogance and ignorance on our environment.
- A Coyote Solstice Tale – A cheeky trickster story poking fun at materialistic consumerism over the holidays. More of a post-thanksgiving story, but it fits.
- Also maybe check out Young Water Protectors: A Story About Standing Rock (I haven’t gotten my hands on this one yet.)
You might also like: Following Indigenous Calls to Action with We Are Water Protectors
Strength in Diversity – Inclusion Without Erasure
- Her Right Foot – A little lofty, but beautiful reminder that our modern nation has been built stronger for diversity, and we must fight to keep striving for equity and inclusion.
- Blue Sky White Stars – Gorgeous paintings depicting the diversity of American citizens.
- Go Show The World – Mini biographies of influential Indigenous people who shaped our modern life.
- Ladder To The Moon – A dreamlike story fostering inclusion for immigrants.
- Dumpling Dreams – An immigrant story of integrating Northern Chinese cuisine into the American menu.
- Brick By Brick – Caveat: this might not be for you. In the wrong hands, this can be alienating and reductive. A poem showing how the US government was literally built on the labor of enslaved Americans. The device starts with focusing on Black bodies (hands, etc.) before personalizing the people with names. If your family isn’t already educated on the exploitation of Black labor, try reading Heart And Soul first.
You might also like: Immigrants Belong Here: Stop Stigmatizing Migration
We Are Stronger Together
- 3 Balls Of Wool – This one isn’t US-based, but it’s still awesome and illustrates how unique perspectives make the world better.
- The Sandwich Swap – How different cultures (in this case food) can seem foreign and strange, but actually enhance our relationships and give us new perspectives.
- Peaceful Fights For Equal Rights – A rallying cry showing many ways we can all fight for justice, putting our own small efforts to create a bigger, collective change.
You might also like: Breaking Walls & Building Bridges – Kids Books About Collective Action
Settlers: Learn About The Wampanoag People
The Wampanoag tribe were the first to encounter the European colonists who settled on on what’s now Massachusetts. Pretty much everything you’ve heard about ‘pilgrims’ (or as they were called before the cheery rebranding then ‘separatists’) is a spun truth or outright lie. The education I received as a child in the MA public school system, and the stories my own son is being taught today in that same system make no damn sense at all.
The picture books we read feature holes you could sail the Mayflower through. Painting the violent, greedy behavior of the Separatists as friendship created a deep dissonance for any reasonably attentive 5-year-old. Learning that this betrayal is the foundation for our home creates a quiet, rancid shame that can only be healed with honesty and action.
I could find only two books for the under-7 crowd on our local Wampanoag tribe – ones that aren’t viewed through the white gaze. Both are approved in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. I’ll admit they are both didactic (best suited for a class discussion than story time) and weren’t engaging for my kids. But they will have to do until I find something enrapturing.
Hey while I have you – this same tribe – the Mashpee Wampanoag are under attack from the US government right now. Please call your senators and support S.2628 the Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, which affects not just our tribe, but tribes across the US who are at risk of having even more land and rights stripped. IT IS 2018 – colonization is still in progress, and it’s your job to stop it.
- Clambake – A modern Wampanoag tradition, showing kids that the Wampanoag are not just mythical beings from history, but actual neighbors and contemporaries.
- 1621: A New Look At Thanksgiving – A didactic book on the Thanksgiving story, from the perspective of the Wampanoag tribe.
- 28 Days – This one is a stretch. It’s the only picture book I’ve found that references Crispus Attucks, a Wampanoag abolitionist.
- (Not pictured) I’ve also screened both Tapenum’s Day and Children of The Morning Light. Tapenum’s Day is listed in the ‘not recommended’ list by Oyate but I haven’t found info on why. Children of the Morning Light was written by an author who claimed connections to the Assonet Band of Wampanoag but has been identified as a charlatan by multiple sources. I will update this list if I find more.
- Keepunumuk – a modern Wampanoag family tell the story of working in relation with the plants and animals to help newcomers.
You might also like: Books To Help Kids Advocate For Immigrant Rights
Settlers: Understand Your History
Teach your kids what their ancestors went through to make a home here, and why it’s so important not to shut the borders down behind them.
- Dreamers – A poetic retelling of the author’s experience navigating the US, tangentially addressing the poor immigration policies that break healthy circular migration.
- Heart And Soul – Understand that some American ancestors came here on slave ships – not by choice, and the luxuries and freedoms we enjoy were built on their backs.
- A Different Pond – An early morning in the life of Vietnamese refugees, keeping their heads down, trying to survive in the US.
- Small Beauties – A reminder for my Irish family who seem so keep on shutting US borders to refugees – how hypocritical it would be to shut the door and lock it behind us.
- The Journey – A heart-wrenching story of a mother and her children while they flee from violence across a terrifying and hostile journey.
- My Name Is Not Refugee – A gentle walk-through for very young kids to help them empathize with kids just like them who must flee conflict.
You might also like: Justifying Our Existence – Children’s Stories Featuring Multiracial Families
Take Responsibility For Our Local & Global Community
- Be The Change – Take responsibility for your actions. A reminder that every single choice we make impacts those who have less than we do.
- Shelter – Take responsibility for sheltering those in need, breaking past a scarcity mindset and a reminder that every one of us is vulnerable and will one day be in need of help.
- Take The Time – Take responsibility for how we treat each other. Small social actions to remind kids to slow down, connect with others, and acknowledge our mistakes.
- Super Manny Cleans Up – Take responsibility for being a leader and healing harm you didn’t cause. On deciding to clean up and heal our local communities, particularly when no one else seems to notice, even if it’s not our fault.
- If You Plant A Seed – Take responsibility for those with less. On sharing the fruits of our labor, even with those who don’t seem to deserve it.
- Sharing The Bread – Take responsibility for our family responsibilities. This is the most US-centric of the stories in this collection, featuring a white family in a settler homestead.
We can understand complicity without demonizing settlers, this is a part of our history. For many Americans, this is a part of ancestral and cultural narrative. It’s okay to celebrate white-people traditions! (So long as it’s not the only perspective we show our kids.)
The trouble with many books featuring white families on Thanksgiving is the addition of half-dressed, token Indians complete with feathers and face-paint. Or the complete erasure of colonial impact, suggesting that everyone is happy now that white folks are here. This book exists within a bubble, not out of oblivion, but as a mindful choice. Zietlow Miller stayed within her lane, choosing to focus on the smaller family dynamic, without painting settlers as saviors.
There’s one page featuring kids constructing European buckled hats, which obviously is problematic – we’ve got enough glorification of invaders. However, it’s also an opportunity with the right knowledge – ask your kids what settlers are taught from the dominant narrative, and why the US chooses to celebrate European immigrants on Thanksgiving, but not immigrants from anywhere else. Use page this as a learning discussion. Each member of the family (regardless of age or gender) contributes and works together to build the meal, setting an expectation for responsibility. Now it’s our responsibility to work together in truth and reconciliation.
Learn What It Means To Give Thanks Every Day
Before we can learn to create a culture of true equity, we’ve got to appreciate the privileges and opportunities we’ve inherited. Teaching kids like mine (who have been given everything I’ve ever wanted for them) to understand what it’s like to have less is a work-in-progress. This should be a 365 days a year thing, obviously.
At this age (4 & 6), we’re teaching them to be mindful of what’s going on around us, to understand the obstacles we don’t have to navigate, and to try not to take their luck for granted.
It’s worth noting, as our supporter Monica R. points out – this might be the one day when we should dial back the gratitude. Being thankful for what we have on this particular day is a celebration of all the things we’ve inherited at the cost of someone else.
- Circle of Thanks – Connecting in mutual help through a chain of kind actions, featuring arctic animals. Written by an Alaskan author (who claims not affiliation on her biography), but I wasn’t able to verify accuracy in the illustrations and tone of this story, which portrays an Iñpiat-presenting mother and child.
- The Table Where Rich People Sit – Demonstrating how wealth isn’t a bank account, it’s access to choice. How choosing our possessions and lifestyle with intent (when possible) gives us more to be grateful for than stuff.
- Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message – My kids will. not. sit. still. for this one, but it’s widely recommended by Indigenous authors and critics. Most notably – how for many Indigenous tribes, thanksgiving is a daily act, which they have been practicing every single day for several thousand years, not something that should be reserved for once a year before a big shopping trip.
- Greet The Dawn – Not a story so much as daily morning prayer of gratitude, you’ll have to prep kids with the understanding that this doesn’t have a beginning-middle-end, but is more of a song, of sorts. It’s gorgeous.
- Originally this collection included the book
Awesome Book Of Thanks– but turns out the author is a turd, so let’s give that one a hard NOPE. I’ll continue to update the collection as we find better replacements. See the comments below for more.
You might also like: Galvanizing Books About Poverty That Inspire Kids To Give Back
Be Radically Generous
Give generously – even if when you don’t expect anything in return. Especially to those who have nothing to give in return.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Celebrate In Gratitude
Every month, I redirect at least 10% of our community donations to support #OwnVoices organizations such as the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project. Join me and donate $15 in supporting Indigenous-led decolonization initiatives such as these.
Say thanks – support Raising Luminaries and help us ignite the next generation of kind & brilliant luminaries.