My son’s phenomenal elementary school teacher, started the first week of school reading Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard. Children volunteered to share their tribal membership and lineage. They talked about family and what fry bread meant to them and their families. From the first day of school, I noticed the beauty of her instructional approach as she read different picture books aloud which invited the children to share their stories. She doesn’t limit books to designated months and is sharing year-round and her pedagogies are culturally sustaining in so many ways (but this is not the purpose of this post, so I’ll stop there).
Recently, two K-2 teachers asked me specifically: What can I do for Indigenous Peoples Day and Thanksgiving? These are two teachers who I didn’t need to say: first, don’t make this a single day or a month. They knew this. I shared with them some of the resources from good sources that I know, and I am sharing them here in case others find them useful. My expertise is in 6-12 teacher education, but I know others who do research/writing in this area or write books for K-2 (and beyond), and they are cited among the resources below. There are so many resources outside of this post, so if this is your first go at it, please don’t limit yourself to this post here. If you are grades 6-12, this is not really the post for you, and on another day, I might venture into recommendations for this age level, which I feel are even more bountiful (which include publications by some of the people cited on the list below, among other brilliant authors and scholars). If you are K-2 and have more suggestions, lay them out in the comments section.
First, I recommend Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza’s Tips for Teachers: Developing Instructional Materials about American Indians (which is K-12). This just offers grounding knowledge that is imperative. If you will read nothing else on this page, read this (and their two comments below the post, which include resources that primarily feature resources for grades 4 and up but are very good).
Indigenous Peoples Day
Every family celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day differently. With my relatives and (non-school) community, growing up, we most often talked about the truth about Columbus on this particular day because it was such a glaring holiday on our school calendar. Looking back, this centers Whiteness in many ways because we were so keenly focused on that day. But it was a reality for us as I would come home with worksheets from school coloring in his face. It is still celebrated as “Columbus Day” in the school district that I grew up in as a student. This made school very confusing to me, where Columbus was revered. It wasn’t until I was in middle school that I felt like my relatives shifted to more of a Indigenous Peoples Day conception and celebration (although they have no problem talking about some of the absurdities of who is revered in holidays—such as Columbus). I don’t know if others celebrated it this way growing up, but this was my experience as a child in K-6.
When these K-2 teachers asked me how they might talk about Indigenous Peoples Day this coming Monday, I recommended that they start by ensuring that their 5- and 6-year-old students knew that Indigenous people are still alive. I know this feels like a basic thing, but young kids are often taught about Indigenous people as a thing in the past, and they don’t seem to connect this past and present connection at this age. The way Native Americans are depicted in history and books, they are frozen in time. If you want to show them that Indigenous people are not a thing of history, you could, for instance, show the Project 562 gallery or you could show this video of an elementary school which offers a bilingual Ojibwe program and bilingual Cree program. Celebrate famous Indigenous people in the news, sports, etc. today. These are quick suggestions, and I am sure others have more.
You might also talk with kids about the land that they live on. I like the Native Land Digital website a lot. This gets complicated because territories are a Western notion, but this site offers a starting point. You can talk about the nations that exist in your area and their present day issues (rather than solely focusing on historical) and look at the nations’ websites.
Focus on reading stories by Indigenous authors. The American Indian Youth Literature Award is a great place to start.
This holiday is associated with a lot of hard experiences for me—and the holiday is inextricably tied to experiences in my schooling. It is these schooling experiences that compelled me to decide to go into teaching. There’s a lot to unpack and it’s beyond this post, so instead, I can offer a brief list of don’ts for teaching: Thanksgiving plays/feasts, dressing up as Indians/Pilgrims, stereotypical images of Indians and pilgrims, Indian names (and while we are at it, spirit animals), Native American craft time, and paper headdresses or fake feathers.
When I was younger, we did a harvest dinner, and our family talked about what this day meant (and it wasn’t a happy pilgrims/Indians thing). As a starting point, Teaching Tolerance offers age-appropriate ideas for teachers, Oyate has a website about myths about Thanksgiving, and you might check out the blog post “Do American Indians celebrate Thanksgiving?” There is also an “interactive historian” website that works against myths about the holiday.
For our family, when we sit down to dinner on that Thursday that is revered by many, we do take the time (and we do this every day) to talk about the food that we are eating and honoring where it came from; the land that we reside on and the original habitants and the cost at which it came to us; and those for whom we are grateful. Along this line, I especially recommend We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorrell. She has another book coming out in April 2021 that is available for pre-order.
I debated not writing this post because I am not a K-2 teacher, and I am not someone who specializes in representation. But I am a parent. And I was a K-2 child once, and this age carries a lot of weight for me, primarily because of how I struggled in school. When these teachers asked me for help, they asked me genuinely, and they were earnest in their goals of doing what is in the best interest of kids. If your expertise falls more in this area and you have recommendations, comment below. If you have questions, comment below. I’ll come back on another day with more 6-12 books, but as I noted, there are so many great resources in this area, that I felt it best to start with K-2.