Native educators say Thanksgiving lessons can be accurate, respectful, and still fun—here’s how

Dr. Star Yellowfish with Junior Miss Seminole Nation, an Oklahoma City high school student in the Native American Student Services program

By Sabrina Holcomb

Dr. Star Yellowfish has a challenge for America’s schools and educators: whether you’re teaching tots or teenagers, celebrate your best Thanksgiving lesson ever by teaching an accurate history of the holiday. Thanksgiving is a great entry point for learning about the culture of America’s first people, says Yellowfish, Director of Native American Student Services for Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) and a member of the Keetowah Cherokees. Teaching truth, and learning from it, helps us honor all of our students and build stronger relationships with each other says Yellowfish, who shares tips and resources to help educators get started.

What motivated you and OCPS to produce a Thanksgiving lesson plan from a Native American perspective?

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Our teachers needed something meaningful, tangible, and easy to follow in their classrooms. And Native parents were frustrated with their child coming home with make-shift feathers and inaccurate stories of Thanksgiving.

What’s the single most important lesson you teach students around Thanksgiving?

How two extremely different communities worked together to coexist and how we can learn from that. [Even though the relationship between the English settlers and Wampanoags was temporary and often strained, it was a rarely achieved peaceful coexistence between early Native Americans and Europeans.]

  • With younger children, you can discuss how Wapanoag and English leaders were at the table for three days talking about how they were going to interact.
  • With older students, you can hold a more in-depth discussion about the whole idea of diplomacy, political alliances, and leadership. Ask them to brainstorm or write an essay about how they would handle a similar situation if it were happening to them today.
Star and nephew with Thanksgiving lesson book

What are some meaningful ways educators can teach their students about Thanksgiving?

  • Replace “Indians” and “Pilgrims” with more specific names: Wampanoag and English or Separatists. As responsible educators, we need to encourage our students to use more accurate terms.
  • Tell the story of the Wampanoag, who were instrumental in helping the English survive. It’s important for students to learn that Wampanoag still exist today.
  • Research Native tribes in your area and invite them to give a lesson at your school. There are over 500 tribes spread throughout the U.S. If you don’t have tribes close to you, build partnerships with Native American organizations and local museums and universities.
  • Focus on the importance of the harvest with young students. Teach them about the role of the three sisters—corn, beans, and squash—in Native cultures.

What should educators avoid?

  • I heard about a Thanksgiving school assignment that involved giving out Native American names. Our names are a very special and private thing. It’s something we do in reverence. There’s a time and a way to do it.
  • Don’t use construction paper feathers. In our culture, feathers are very sacred. You have to earn them. Let me give you a better alternative—teaching children how to make Native American chokers with pony beads and imitation bone. It’s more culturally appropriate and still fun.
  • I don’t think there’s anyone still singing the “10 Little Indians” song. [Original lyrics were written for a minstrel show]

Have you had to deal with any pushback from schools or parents?

The biggest criticism I’ve heard is that Native people are too sensitive and we’re taking the fun out of Thanksgiving celebrations at school. But when I’ve talked to parents one on one or in small groups and explain what we’re doing instead, they’re perfectly fine.

  • If you get resistance from anyone, explain that you’re not taking Thanksgiving away, you’re redesigning it. It’s not a foreign concept to redesign and teach content differently. We do it for math and other subjects. There’s no reason we can’t have really fun, interactive, and accurate lessons around Thanksgiving.

How do kids like the redesign?

My nephew’s parents found out the night before that his public elementary school had planned a typical Thanksgiving celebration, with students dressing as “Pilgrims” and “Indians.” When they expressed their concerns to his teacher and principal, the school changed their plans and redesigned the celebration, all within a matter of hours.

The parents took part by teaching students a lesson about Native culture and the original Thanksgiving. The kids still got to sit down and have a feast. Nobody dressed up in costumes and the students still had a blast because everybody came together in the spirit of cooperation and Thanksgiving. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Check out these Thanksgiving lessons and resources for elementary and middle school students:

A Story of Survival: The Wampanoag and the English
A Thanksgiving Lesson Plan Booklet from a Native American Perspective (Oklahoma City Public Schools)

Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth, A Study Guide (National Museum of the American Indian)

American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving, Grades 4-8 (NMAI)

Reader Comments

  1. Somehow this word needs to get out to teachers in mid-October while plans are being designed! Such great resources! I cringe every year when I see the construction paper feathers and “playing Indian”. One kindergarten pilgrim and Indian dress up celebration was even proudly displayed on my District’s Facebook page. Would we dress up as African Americans?!!

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