Please don’t dress-up your kids as Native Americans for Thanksgiving.

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.
Secondly, 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:  
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.

4 responses to “Please don’t dress-up your kids as Native Americans for Thanksgiving.

  1. Good for you, Mom. I kept my daughter home from school the day her kindergarten class watched the Disney movie Pocahontas as part of the unit on Thanksgiving. By Thanksgiving of 1st grade she was in a Quaker school where nothing so insensitive would ever happen. Keep fighting the good fight!


  2. Emily,

    You know me personally, so I’m just going to tell you a partial reason why you **might** have gotten that response. I’m not saying it is right or wrong, but I’m just in the education field, so I can speak to that.

    First, she was trying to prompt in her reply to you to assure you that she would never want to offend your personal beliefs about your own child when it comes to any kind of holiday. I am not sure that her response to you was a blow off as much as it was an acknowledgment of your feelings and relaying that you could opt out of it. In the south, I’m actually almost surprised she did respond to you and not truly blow you off by ignoring you. (I don’t mean that as a mean response, I just know how some people in education can be when they receive a lengthy letter in response to something they don’t feel as “important” to them. Please know I am not downgrading your letter. Just speaking as an educator who constantly receives lengthy emails about many, many different things daily. It is very hard to keep up AND teach.)

    If anything, I can probably tell you that she has multiple students of varying ethnicities and multicultural backgrounds that she addresses their own individual beliefs on a daily basis. And she has them times the whole school. You probably planted a seed, but she’s not going to be able to cancel an event for the whole kindergarten that quickly. That would be impossible considering the parents who might have invested lots of time and/or money in costumes. To be more effective next year, you might consider finding others who agree with you, starting a petition, or approach her earlier in the year in person with your concerns. Again, I don’t know the particular timing of your letter, but sometimes a face-to-face meeting can convey a lot more than just an email. Emails can always be taken the wrong way.

    I do know that the south has a long way to go. I also know that you probably gave her more information that she’s ever had on the topic. =) Consider that part a great thing, and try not to get too upset. Racial reconciliation is a long, arduous process. If we keep educating each other, we will (hopefully) one day reach that point. I’m so glad that you took the time to explain your views in a non-confrontational way. I’m not defending her (or the practice), but I am telling you honestly this has been a difficult year for educators. I think she probably did the best response she could do in a quick, timely manner without meaning to blow you off as you feel she did.

    L. Confident (you know who I am–haha!) =)


  3. Hey Emily, this is something I have thought about many times, but haven’t come to an exact conclusion on. As a multiracial person myself and someone who is often asked if I am Native due to my Japanese/Mexican ancestry, I clearly recall an episode in kindergarten having to do the same thing at my school. I and another boy (white, freckly) were chosen to narrate the Thanksgiving play for our parents, and the teachers very carefully did not give us a choice to our costumes, but dressed me as the Pilgrim and the boy as the Native. Very PC given our looks!

    Often people dress as geisha, ninja, samurai, or “Mexicans” (sombrero, sarape or bolero, etc) for Halloween or whatever and I don’t take offense. Granted, the argument is that the Native dress depicted has deep religious meaning, but one could say that the Pilgrims way of dress did too, and no one seems to be upset at that. The whole dressing up thing may not be ideal but on the other hand it allows an opportunity (if less than perfect) for these people to be brought into the conciousness of the majority, when they would rather forget about them.

    I think for me the whole thing is intent. Is the dressing up to mock and ridicule a particular culture? Or because you admire an aspect and want to “be like them” for the day? I am offended when people dress up in wetback Mexican costumes (yes they exist), but not a mariachi, for example. Maybe we just need to educate kids on what an appropriate Native costume is (here is what they wore to go hunting/every day; okay, here is what they wore for religious ceremonies; not okay).

    It’s a tricky question.


  4. Pingback: This Week in Early American History « The Junto

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