Dismantling the Thanksgiving Myth with Children’s and YA Literature

By Rebecca Hopman

Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

It’s that time of year when many elementary school kids across the United States don capotains, buckle boots, headdresses, and moccasins to celebrate Thanksgiving. Cue the romanticized and often derogatory imagery of Native Americans, the tidy and tired story of the Pilgrims and Indians where “everyone gets along [and] everyone gets to eat.” [1]

painting of pilgrims and indians sitting down to eat at the first Thanksgiving

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) Source: Wikimedia Commons (Jennie Augusta Brownscombe [Public domain])

Earlier this month, Sidney Wegener wrote about “Why We Should be Anti-Celebrating Thanksgiving.” She points out that the kids learning the “Pilgrims and Indians” story grow up to be adults who perpetuate this false narrative, instead of coming to terms with the much more complicated reality. “While not all families have the economic resources to participate in traditional American Thanksgiving celebrations,” Wegener writes, “everyone has the capability to change the way they think about this national holiday.”

So how can parents responsibly talk with their kids about the Thanksgiving story and Native Americans, without falling back on the “Pilgrims and Indians” myth or homogenized and romanticized depictions of Native peoples? One way is to read books about Native characters, written by Native American/First Nations authors.

How do you find those books? Thankfully, there are many resources online for just that purpose. (I have included a selection of websites and articles below.) But while there are a growing number of children’s and YA books by and about Native American/First Nation peoples, they are still vastly underrepresented in the publishing world.

In 2002, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed 3,150 children’s books published that year. Sixty-four of those books (or 2%) featured a main character or significant secondary character who was identified as a Native American or a member of the First Nations. Only six books (or 0.2%) were written by Native American/First Nations authors. Last year, out of 3,653 books, 55 (1%) featured a main or significant Native American/First Nations character. Thirty-eight books (1.5%) were written by Native American/First Nations authors. [2]

In 2014, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign – and later the We Need Diverse Books nonprofit organization – was launched to support diversity in children’s literature. [3] They, along with many authors, scholars, critics, editors, and readers, have increasingly called on the publishing industry to produce and promote books for children and young adults that respect and reflect a broader range of identities and experiences. Critically, this effort must include publishing more books written by diverse authors and hiring diverse editorial staff. [4] Publishers, of course, respond to what sells, so you can join this effort by buying books by and about diverse people or by checking out books from your local library (you can often request or recommend books for purchase if the library doesn’t have them in their collection).

So, this Thanksgiving, whether you have children or teens in your life or you appreciate a good children’s or YA book, take the opportunity to choose a story that is about Native characters, written by Native American/First Nations authors.

Woman reading to two children

Source: Wikimedia Commons (San Jose Library [CC BY-SA 2.0])

November, in addition to being Native American Heritage Month in the United States, is also Picture Book Month. Celebrate both by reading and sharing picture books written by and about Native Americans and First Nations peoples. Find some suggestions in the resources shared below.


Resources

Native American children’s and YA book recommendations and resources:

Diversity in children’s and YA books:


Notes

[1] Klem-Marí Cajigas, “Tackling Racism in Children’s Classics: The Thanksgiving Story,” Nashville Public Library. Accessed on November 9, 2019. See also “Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?” by Dennis Zotigh, National Museum of the American Indian, November 23, 2016.
[2] Data on books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations published for children and teens is compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. More information can be found on their website. Accessed on November 9, 2019.
[3] The We Need Diverse Books organization defines diversity as “including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” I use this definition when referring to “diverse” people in this piece.
[4] Kacen Callender, “We Need Diverse Editors,” Publishers Weekly, November 1, 2019.

Federal Policies Negatively Effecting Indigenous Food Sovereignty

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Hannah is writing her thesis on Matilda Hamilton Fee and women in higher education administration in the south during the 19th century. 

From July 2017 to June 2018, I had the privilege of working as a fellow at the National Farm to School Network in Washington, D.C. During my time there, I learned about the federal policies and acts that are driving our federal food aid policies, such as The Farm Bill, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as Food Stamps), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). In learning about these policies, I became familiar with the programming and grants that my organization used to support Native Communities in food production and consumption. 

In relation to that, last year, this blog published a piece about the Farm Bill’s effects on Native Communities, linked here. I encourage you to read that post in addition to this post as this is a multi-faceted problem. This post is focused first, on how displacement of Native Communities has adversely affected the long term health of Indigenous Communities and second, how SNAP and past federal food policies have affected the health of those communities. 

First, it is important to define food sovereignty. According to Devon Mihesuah, a researcher and coauthor of “Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health,” food sovereignty is defined as the “healthy and culturally appropriate food generated by a community that oversees the entire process, from production to trade to sustainability.” [1] It is important in understanding what this looks like in order to be able to understand how federal policies have negated Native people’s ability to feed themselves with their own autonomy. 

At the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held in 2014, the issue of food rights were brought up by those in attendance. An issue they spoke of specifically was the phenomenon they called “nutrition transition.” Nutrition Transition can be defined as when Indigenous or Native Communities are forced to relocate to reservations by western forces, which caused them to change how they consume food. [2] One example of this would be to think about communities who previously ate bison and buffalo. When Europeans invaded native land, they killed several of those animals, forcing those communities to shift their eating habits. Later, when the US government began forcing Native Communities away from their original native lands, they were often moved to different temperate climates, changing the types of food they could produce. [3] This forced shift has created devastating effects on the health of Indigenous Communities. 

Since 1977, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations program has existed for people living too far away from SNAP approved grocery stores on their reservations. This is one of the alternatives to SNAP for qualifying Indigenous people. Though this program can be a helpful supplement to food sources, some 60% of Native Americans who are on it use the program as their number one resource for food, rather than a supplement. Comparatively, only 37% of Native Americans on SNAP benefits use that program as their number one source for food. The foods provided by these programs are primarily processed staples with long shelf lives, meaning that fresh fruits, vegetables, and unsalted meats are not a part of many Native American’s lives if they rely on these programs for sustenance. [4]

Before Europeans invaded and either destroyed people’s food sources or forced them to change, Indigenous Communities consumed foods such as “elk, white-tailed deer, turkeys, corn, squash, beans and bison.” Once Europeans invaded, they brought in animals such as cows, goats, and chickens, introducing poultry and dairy to the diets of native communities. [1] This initially shifted the diets of many Native Americans in a drastic way. Once federal food assistance programs began providing food to Native Communities, the rate of Native people with Type 2 Diabetes skyrocketed, and Native Americans became twice as likely to have diabetes compared to white Americans. Because SNAP benefits include the types of foods that are extremely salted in order to have a longer shelf life, the foods consumed created long term health issues. 

The ways in which the US federal and state governments have wronged Native Communities are innumerable, but the ways in which the federal food programs have affected their health are long lasting. Food sovereignty is just one of the rights that Native Communities are fighting for, and one that is complicated and multifaceted in its causes and solutions. I encourage you to find more information on this topic to better understand how to be an ally in creating local, state, and federal policy changes.

For more information on this topic, see: 

  1. Farm to School in Native Communities
  2. National Native Network: Traditional Foods Resource Guide  

Sources: 

[1] INDIGENOUS FOOD SOVEREIGNTY EXAMINED IN NEW BOOK

[2] United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2014) 

[3] Native American Food   

[4] How Might Trump’s Food Box Plan Affect Health? Native Americans Know All Too Well

Why We Should Be Anti-Celebrating Thanksgiving

By Sidney Wegener

Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.

Often, on the last Thursday of November, American families gather around the dinner table to eat and appreciate the blessings in their lives. For many, Thanksgiving is a favorite “holiday.” In the twenty-first century, it may be depicted as a happy family eating lots of food and soon rushing off for Black Friday sales. However, this picture is painted for those who have the money to afford a supermarket turkey, a home to gather in, and the privilege of blissfully living on stolen land. For hundreds of Native American nations and tribes, this holiday is a reminder of the genocide committed against them by European colonizers, which began almost four hundred years ago. A new tradition of anti-celebrating Thanksgiving is long overdue. Here’s why.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Not a Native American holiday. This means that participating in traditional American festivities constitutes a celebration of the English settler invasion of North America. European immigration directly resulted in the murder and rape of thousands upon thousands of Native people, pillaging their homes and resources, and eventually forcing them to live on, what are now known, as “reservations.” While you might be grateful for the food on your table, you may be forgetting how it got there. Twenty-first century American traditions of celebrating Thanksgiving and getting ready for Black Friday sales are ultimately due to a long chain of events caused by European settlers and white American corruption.

For nearly fifty years, the United American Indians of New England have mobilized a rally and day of mourning on November twenty-second. They explain the significance of this day by stating:

“Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.” (Native Hope)

Those of us who are not native to North America are generally unaware of the flip side of this Thanksgiving coin. Children in schools are taught that the pilgrims and the Native people met harmoniously and offered each other new resources and mutual support. Many even celebrate the idealized generosity of Native people by making paper headdresses and reenacting the romanticized relations. It is probably not appropriate to tell elementary-aged children about the numerous massacres which white immigrants waged against tribes such as the Pequot, or the disease epidemics which nearly wiped out whole native populations. However, teaching a false history is devastating to how the majority of American children understand Thanksgiving. These children grow up to be adults. Adults who buy supermarket turkeys, decorate their homes with pumpkins, and go Black Friday shopping. While not all families have the economic resources to participate in traditional American Thanksgiving celebrations, everyone has the capability to change the way they think about this national holiday. For many tribal nations within the United States, this is a day of solemn remembrance. 

This is Native American Heritage Month. November 23rd is Native American Heritage Day. And Thanksgiving, which falls on November 28th this year, is an opportunity to change the way that non-Native Americans honor the history of English settlers’ immigration and invasion of North America. Native Hope is an organization built upon preserving the pan-tribal histories, stories, and traditions, while spreading awareness of the misconceptions many Americans are taught. This organization suggests ways Native and non-Native people can celebrate (or anti-celebrate) Thanksgiving:

“We remember the generosity of the Wampanoag tribe to the helpless settlers.

We remember the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who lost their lives at the hands of colonialists and the genocide of whole tribes.

We remember the vibrant and powerful Native descendants, families, and communities that persist to this day throughout the culture and the country.

We remember people like Sharice Davids and Debra Haaland who just became the first Native American women elected to Congress.” (Native Hope).

I urge all Americans to take further steps to educate ourselves and seek out new ways in which we can honor a collective American history. Those who have the means to participate in American Thanksgiving traditions will hopefully consider ways in which they can anti-celebrate in awareness and spirit, without giving up the family time and food. If you are lacking inspiration or want more information, a few sources to get started are listed below.

Native Hope. “What Does Thanksgiving Mean to Native Americans?”

United Native Americans of New England“Native American Girls Describe the REAL History Behind Thanksgiving.” YouTube. November 23, 2016.