On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, as I have for the past 20 years, I will see a parade of elementary school students pass by my house wearing construction paper headdresses created at school and arrowhead-shaped name tags emblazoned with their whimsical “Indian names.” This practice will constitute a large portion of their education about Native peoples and cultures.
As a Wisconsin Ojibwe woman, I have nothing against Thanksgiving; we celebrate it annually in our adopted home here in Ohio. Giving thanks and feasting with friends and relatives is a longtime Ojibwe tradition that spans the entire year.
I am deeply ambivalent, however, about the national holiday of Thanksgiving. The ongoing practice by many public schools of using the Thanksgiving myth as a basis for “teaching” students about Native history and culture continues to exasperate the hell out me.
Even with the rich resources available to educators from the National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Knowledge 360° project, my local schools continue their outdated love affair with Thanksgiving.
Schools in some states are trying to do better. States such as Washington and Montana have mandatory laws about including Native American history and culture. Meanwhile, in several states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and California, Native American educators and citizens are pushing for greater inclusion of Native American history and culture in curriculum.
Native peoples continue to be placed firmly in the past tense, part of an ancient, primitive bygone era. For most Americans, if they think of Native peoples at all, it is usually in association with the dubious, consumer-driven feel-good story about pilgrims and Indians sitting down together for a Thanksgiving meal.
Even beyond the Thanksgiving myth, education around Native peoples tends to focus on certain historical events. Students may learn that the Shawnee, Miami, Wyandot and other tribes considered Ohio as their homelands before they were forced out by President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. It’s unlikely, however, that they will learn about the contemporary lives of the federally recognized Shawnee, Miami and Wyandot Nations that are alive and well in Oklahoma.
Particularly in Ohio, which leads the country in its number of public school Native American sports mascots, this practice of minimizing all things Native holds great significance.
Although non-Natives in the region insist that perpetuating the Thanksgiving myth as education and clinging to Native mascot names are a means to honor Native peoples, these practices are in fact key elements to maintaining a power balance over people of color.
The ongoing trivialization and parodying of Native peoples supports and normalizes themes of white entitlement. Unfortunately, the small Native population in the region has resulted in limited public outcry against these practices.
There are, in fact, no federally recognized tribal reservations in Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana; the Native population in this region is small, mostly comprised of transplants from other states like me. These facts are often cited by educators and mascot supporters as justification for discounting and mocking Native peoples.
The formula of maintaining white entitlement and hegemony relies on the fearful other-ing and belittling of a group of people — practices that are especially intolerable when deployed by educators.
I’ve also heard educators complain that teaching children the true history of Native peoples and the US’s role in systematically annihilating and disenfranchising millions of its indigenous peoples is too fraught and complex for young minds.
In mainstream America, indigenous peoples are often viewed in extremes of either erasure or overwhelming guilt for all that has befallen us since European contact.
In reality, we are so much more than these narrow perspectives. Today more than ever, our authentic stories and lives of resilience, connection with community and land should be included and celebrated by all Americans.
For instance, the roles that tribal sovereignty and treaty rights have and continue to play in protecting the environment for Native and non-Native peoples are important lessons in both civics and science. Zoltán Grossman describes in his recent book, Unlikely Alliances, how tribes’ abilities to create their own clean air and water standards help protect communities from the depredation of commercial mining and fossil fuel industries. The Wisconsin Ojibwe played a major role in creating legislation regulating the mining industry there.
Indigenous peoples, who often rely on subsistence hunting, gathering and fishing to feed their families, have integrated science into their everyday lives since time immemorial. Observation is the foundation of scientific research; Indigenous peoples rely on generations of ecological knowledge accumulated through observation in order to manage and respond to the environment.
Even “big science” is beginning to value ecological and traditional knowledge as our societies struggle with ways to address the impact of climate change. Indigenous peoples have important examples of resilience and ways of mitigating the impact of climate change on their communities to share with the rest of the world.
Most recently, the midterm elections, with its unprecedented number of Native American candidates, mostly women, for public office is a powerful lesson in understanding the traditional role that Native women play in leadership. I had the great privilege of participating in the first ever live Native-driven election coverage with several of my Native colleagues.
Moreover, the backstories of treaties that play an unrecognized role in state and federal relationships with tribes make for fascinating teaching opportunities about the power of democracy and grassroots organizing.
The story of how the Ojibwe of Wisconsin, my tribe, thwarted a presidential removal order with diplomacy and the clever use of public relations rather than war makes for edge-of-the seat reading. Ojibwe educators are now working to include in Wisconsin’s history curriculum the history of Chief Buffalo’s great journey in 1852, at the age of 92, to bring a birch bark petition signed by all the Ojibwe leaders to President Fillmore in Washington, D.C.
The US’s Thanksgiving feast doesn’t have to be celebrated at the expense of Native peoples. Expanding school curricula to include real Native histories, current events and scientific perspectives – instead of simply rehashing the Thanksgiving myth – can help us move beyond the white hegemony that currently governs the classroom, and toward an ideal of radical inclusion for all people.
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