Below is a letter that I sent to the principal of Evelyne’s school. I’m a rather non-confrontational person, but I felt that this was a practical and important issue for me to speak-up about.
[Principal's Name],My daughter Evelyne is in Mrs. _____ kindergarten class, and today I received a letter explaining that the children are to dress-up as either Pilgrims or Native Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving on two different occasions. I assume this is something that the kids do every year, and I’m not trying to be a problem parent, but I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of kids dressing-up in stereotypical Native American costumes.There’s a couple of reasons I feel this way:First, there has been enough of a response from the Native community about this and how they believe it is disrespectful that non-Native people should not presume to keep this tradition. It is not an accurate representation of their culture both now or then. Even when no disrespect is intended, it sends the message to kids that Native Americans are people with feathers in their hair who carry tomahawks…. that they’re not regular people like you and me.. that they’re not Americans and one of us, that they’re “the other.” From what I understand, there is a deeply religious component to the ceremonial headdress, and it is offensive for non-Natives to caricature that and other symbolic elements of their culture. I don’t think that it’s in any way appropriate for anyone to use a costume to represent an entire culture of which they are not a part. There has been a recent backlash to cultural dress-up in the “It’s a Culture Not a Costume” campaign where people from all different cultures ask to not be degraded into a costume. http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/191023-were-a-culture-not-a-costumeSecondly, there’s the whole issue of historical accuracy and the way the European colonists wiped-out most of the Native population through plague and violence. As I’m sure you know, the first Thanksgiving meal is just a story. From what I understand, there were brief periods of peace between the two groups that were usually ended by broken treaties, genocide, and land acquisition by the settlers. Years later, shortly after Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday he executed a large group of Dakota Natives for political reasons. Thanksgiving is a time of mourning for many Natives. Native Americans continue to be an oppressed people group in our country, and I just don’t think it’s a good idea to perpetuate the myth of racial harmony between the two groups of people when it never existed. It does the Natives an injustice when we fail to teach our kids the truth and in the process create stereotypes and disrespect for the culture they hold dear. True racial harmony will only happen when we start listening to each other and take seriously the objections voiced by Natives to our Thanksgiving traditions.I came across this quote that I really resonated with: “It’s demeaning… I’m sure you can appreciate the inappropriateness of asking children to dress up like slaves (and kind slave masters), or Jews (and friendly Nazis), or members of any other racial minority group who has struggled in our nation’s history.”Again, I’m not trying to be a problem parent and stir-up unpleasantness, and I have no doubt that the teachers and administration at ______ have nothing but the most innocent intentions. But I do think that it’s wrong, and I wanted to let you know that I feel this way and to please consider changing your dress-up plans.Other thoughts about this can be found here:http://eugenecho.com/2012/10/13/please-do-not-dress-up-for-halloween-as-blackface-brownface-or-yellowface/#more-10171http://loveisntenough.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/thanksgiving-and-teaching-about-native-americans1.pdfThanks,Emily Jones
Do you know what response I got?
Mrs. Jones,Thank you for your thoughts, this, of course, is an optional activity. Your child does not have to participate in the feast or the PTA performance.
She basically blew me off. Apparently there is no interest in dialogue about this, which doesn’t really surprise me, but it was still a bummer.
I didn’t feel like this was my hill to die on, especially since there was no interest from the principal in considering my objections. Evelyne was excited about the little musical performance the whole kindergarten was giving for the parents, so I glued together some fabric and made her into a cute little (historically inaccurate) Pilgrim. Out of about 75 kindergarteners, she was one of maybe seven Pilgrims.