Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 14 2012


I’m trying to do something scary with my kids. Actually, two somethings. And it’s not scary for them, it’s scary for me.

Here’s something number 1:

This is the last week of school before Thanksgiving break, and I’m allowed to read whatever I want (let’s be honest, I’m pretty much always allowed to read whatever I want because no one knows what’s going on in my room, nor does anyone administrative at my school seem have advice or even opinions for what should be going on). Last year I was too nervous and feeling too culturally ignorant to even approach the Thanksgiving story with my Native kids. We talked about thankfulness in general and did not mention Pilgrims at all.

This year I felt like maybe we could talk about it, and then I realized that I was a little fuzzy on what the real Thanksgiving story entails. I had heard so many versions that, while I knew generally things worked out badly for the Wampanoags and massacre was involved, I didn’t know all the specifics. I decided that this was a good reason to educate myself, and also my kids. As members of a tribe that has withstood attempted genocides (physical and cultural), my kids deserve to be thinking critically about how Native American people have been treated historically. Telling them about happy Pilgrims and Indians and pumpkin pie is pretty much lying. For that matter, not telling them anything is pretty much lying.

There’s a lot to be said for how I should not be the person teaching them this. I, as an outsider culturally, racially, and regionally, should not and will not be teaching them what it means to be Native American. The best I can do is share information, share history, and share multiple perspectives. The best I can do is create a safe space where they can start to figure these things out for themselves.

At the same time, there is a difference between trying to teach them to “be Native” and trying to teach them the history of what happened to a different group of Native people in our country. We have attempted the latter this week.

It makes me really nervous, because I am still quite culturally ignorant and new at this being-an-ally thing, and I am worried I’ll slip up and say something toolish or a kid will misunderstand something. I’m also worried that parents might be upset. It’s pretty scary being honest with kids, and I could think of a lot of people who would be justified in not wanting us to talk about this topic. But it seems worth it.

So far it is going…interestingly. First of all, it seems every teacher they have ever had has been just as wary to approach the story as I was last year, so rather than debunking the happy-pumpkin-pie story I thought they knew, it turns out this is the first of the Thanksgiving story they have ever heard. Second of all, my kids are just as much a product of media America as any, and they don’t necessarily connect themselves as Navajo to the concept of Native American, or that of Indian. This leads to some funny incidents:

Me: Stereotypes are when someone makes a judgment about a whole group of people. These judgments are often unfair. For example, some people say girls can’t play sports. That’s a stereotype.

Them: Yeah, ‘cause a long time ago girls weren’t allowed, but now they are.

Me: Exactly. Another stereotype that some people believe, especially in areas of the country where there aren’t many Native Americans, is that Indians always wear feathers, like our character said. Is that true?

Them: Yeah! Like in Pocahontas!

Me: Well, how many people in this room are Indians?


Me: Being Navajo means you are Native, and Indian is another word for Native American.

Them: (3 kids tentatively raising hands)

Me: You’re all Navajo, so you’re all Native.

Them: (raising hands for real now)

Me: OK, so almost all of us are Native. Are you wearing feathers right now?

Them: Yes!

Me: Show me the feathers.

Them: Oh. I guess not.

Me: So it looks like that was an unfair stereotype, huh? We know all Native people don’t wear feathers. Sometimes they might, for a dance or a ceremony, but not all the time. It is an unfair stereotype.

D’oh. On the other hand, for our vocabulary pictures helping us understand the words “Native” and “tradition” I put pictures of traditional Wampanoag things as well as traditional Navajo things, to try to make a little bit of a connection to things they are more familiar with. One of my sometimes-disinvested kids, who has strong opinions on what is worth participating in or not, raises his hand.

“You know, I really like this week’s vocabulary.”

“That’s great. How come?”

“I don’t know. ‘Cause it’s like…like Navajo stuff and Native stuff. I like it more.”

Awesome. That’s what we were going for.

Jury’s still out. I’ll hold off on explaining the other thing I’m doing that is scary until another post, but it’s another being-honest-with-kids-even-when-it’s-a-sad-story thing. I was brought up to shield kids from bad things, not talk about heartbreak. But I have to remember: my kids know so much more heartbreak already at 10 than I do at 23. Shielding them isn’t always helpful.  Shielding them isn’t critical thinking, and it isn’t justice. They deserve truth, even when it means taking the shield down.

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