Your wish is my command

Tami at Anti-Racist Parent writes the following:

What will it take to convince educators that “dressing up like Indians” for Thanksgiving is as offensive and ignorant as black face? Different Native American tribes wear specific regalia with cultural meaning–the clothes are not costumes–for varying purposes. Just once, I’d like to hear about a school inviting a representative from a local Indian tribe to speak to a class about the impact of Manifest Destiny on indigenous peoples.

It’s from 2003, but this Tribune article talks about a principal who did it right:

A group of Skokie 1st graders got an unexpected lesson in cultural sensitivity Friday when their principal wouldn’t let them dress as American Indians for their annual Thanksgiving celebration … On Friday, when the Madison School 1st graders gathered for their Thanksgiving celebration, they got a lesson in American Indian culture. In place of the kids’ traditional costumed re-enactment, the school invited Malatare to tell the children about his culture. Malatare taught the pupils a few words in the Oglala Lakota language and led them in a traditional blessing.

Okay, maybe the Manifest Destiny part wasn’t covered. But kudos to principal Pete Davis and the American Indian Center for trying to educate. One down, how many more to go?

How did parents respond?

“I’m a little disgusted,” said Terri Lefler, whose son, Matthew, 6, didn’t understand why he couldn’t wear the costume he’d made. “I think we could have let the children wear the costumes and still taught them to respect the differences and the importance of Native American culture.”

“I don’t think it had anything to do with Thanksgiving,” parent Keith Liscio said of Malatare’s presentation. “I think it kind of just hijacked the whole purpose of today’s program.”

Liscio said he couldn’t find a way to make his daughter understand why she couldn’t wear her pilgrim outfit.

“She and her friend came home from a Brownie meeting last night, and they were in tears,” Liscio said Friday after visiting the school with other parents to watch the assembly. “This is a tradition that was changed in the blink of an eyelid because one person complained. We’re just bent over so far backward to be politically correct that we’re doing things that are almost nonsensical.”

Jennifer Miller-Davis questioned whether her daughter, Emma, understood much of what Malatare said.

“What does a 6- or 7-year-old know about stereotyping?” Miller-Davis said. “There was no discussion about how this should be handled. The school just made the decision so fast.”

Racismese translations for those of you who aren’t fluent:

I think we could have let the children wear the costumes and still taught them to respect the differences and the importance of Native American culture = I don’t understand this whole thing and thinking too hard hurts my brain.

I don’t think it had anything to do with Thanksgiving. I think it kind of just hijacked the whole purpose of today’s program. = I don’t know the history of Thanksgiving, and the purpose of the program was to reinforce my already existing beliefs.

This is a tradition that was changed in the blink of an eyelid because one person complained. We’re just bent over so far backward to be politically correct that we’re doing things that are almost nonsensical. = Tradition is another word for institutionalized racism. And it seems like a blink of an eyelid because I can’t believe anybody would address racism so immediately. Why can’t we convene an anti-racism group and discuss this for six months before deciding that the costumes aren’t racist? Why do we have to listen to one person? And why should I have to try to understand anybody else’s viewpoint when it doesn’t make sense to me? Better I just slam it with “politically correct” and “nonsensical.”

What does a 6- or 7-year-old know about stereotyping? = I’m teaching her the stereotypes I believe. Stop demonstrating another world view.

6 thoughts on “Your wish is my command

  1. Here two native women deconstruct the myths of Thanksgiving.

    Perhaps the most pertinent part is this: According to oral accounts from the Wampanoag people, when the Native people nearby first heard the gunshots of the hunting colonists, they thought that the colonists were preparing for war and that Massasoit needed to be informed. When Massasoit showed up with 90 men and no women or children, it can be assumed that he was being cautious. When he saw there was a party going on, his men then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys.

    In addition, both the Wampanoag and the English settlers were long familiar with harvest celebrations. Long before the Europeans set foot on these shores, Native peoples gave thanks every day for all the gifts of life, and held thanksgiving celebrations and giveaways at certain times of the year. The Europeans also had days of thanksgiving, marked by religious services. So the coming together of two peoples to share food and company was not entirely a foreign thing for either. But the visit that by all accounts lasted three days was most likely one of a series of political meetings to discuss and secure a military alliance. Neither side totally trusted the other: The Europeans considered the Wampanoag soulless heathens and instruments of the devil, and the Wampanoag had seen the Europeans steal their seed corn and rob their graves. In any event, neither the Wampanoag nor the Europeans referred to this feast/meeting as “Thanksgiving.” … For many Indian people, “Thanksgiving” is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, “Thanksgiving” is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship.

    In addition to all your excellent racismese translations I’ll add one more: School is the place for the perpetuation of Eurocentric/euphemistic mythology — how dare you try to make my kids learn actual truths.

  2. I remember when we learned about Columbus and the colonists in my first grade classroom. It really was one of the only experiential learning instances in school that I can say changed my life and my perspective on the world and history.

    I’m not sure exactly how it went, but it was something along the lines of a handful of my classmates where in one corner of the room (Columbus and the colonists) and the entire rest of us were “populated” around the rest of the room. Slowly, the Colonist-crowd would advance and for one reason or another we had to give up all of our space and all the stuff we had in our space – and we were pushed farther and farther into one corner of the room with almost no “stuff”, while the Colonist-folks were spread luxuriously over the room with all of our stuff (while we were crammed into a corner). This, of course, didn’t demonstrate genocide, but it was a huge revelation and impacting lesson for a bunch of first graders (or at least for me). I think I can identify that lesson as one reason that I have always doubted “traditional” tales of U.S. history – because they touted Columbus as a hero. This particular lesson is also probably one reason that I am learning about alternative education and alternative U.S. history.

    Of course, I think some parent complained, because the next year we had to do a week long Thanksgiving lesson – where we all dressed up as Pilgrims, turned our classroom into the Mayflower, and acted as if we were Pilgrims the entire time (we were even given specific pilgrim names, and we were “married” to other pilgrim-classmates or other pilgrim-classmates were our “children.” And we were “escaping religious persecution” and every single one of us were one of the “pilgrims” – it was pretty messed up historically and mentally.)

  3. Actually, thinking about it, that’s a good point. If I was 6 in first grade, that would have been about 14-years ago – two-years after the mega-controversy over the 500 year “anniversary” of Columbus’ landing. It’s also worth noting that my first grade teacher was a person of color, and if I’m remembering correctly, my parents were extremely happy about other history-related-stuff we learned in her classroom.

  4. It’s encouraging to know that you had a different history lesson 14 years ago. I learned the whole “Columbus discovered America” thing and recently polled a bunch of 6-8 year olds about this. Apparently it’s still being taught.

  5. It’s still being taught. I wrote a piece about the whole Columbus thing last year, and in looking for info, I came across many sites that included ideas and curriculum for teaching young kids about Columbus. It was all definitely the “Columbus as bold explorer/discoverer” model rather than the “Columbus as genocidal sorry-ass-navigator” model. But I guess as long he still has a friggin’ holiday, he must be worth celebrating, right? I mean, if the government says he’s a hero …

    On the other hand, in my daughters’ high school history classes, their instructors did teach them from Howard Zinn. BUT, that’s a wholenuther rant, b/c those were the “honors” teachers, the kids in the basic classes got the “regular” textbook history. Which goes into who is and isn’t in the honors classes, and how resources are allocated …


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