Rethinking Thanksgiving: Native American Children’s Books to Read All Year

“Critical Race Theory” is a hot topic in many homes, school districts, and on social media these days. Many states have even started to remove or ban books that approach topics like race, gender, and sexuality. Like many things, tensions and conversations around this can escalate quickly and that can make it difficult to have the real, meaningful conversations that our country so desperately needs!

We need to learn to have these conversations as adults to impact lasting change, but there is also so much we can do in our own homes today by having calm, regular, and proactive discussions with our kids to help them grow up to become more empathetic, conscious, and equality-focused humans.

Most of us know that the feel-good Thanksgiving story we grew up with isn’t historically accurate — though, most of us may be a bit fuzzy on the truth, too! It can be hard unlearning things we’ve been socialized and taught to believe, but it’s worth it. Our children deserve to see us do this work and need to hear the real story in age-appropriate ways, but also have year-long exposure and access to Native American representation in books and media. Check out this article we wrote to learn more about the true story of Thanksgiving, and keep reading for tips to foster a broader understanding and awareness of Native people, cultures, and traditions with your little feminist this Thanksgiving and all year long!

Be Specific: Introduce Your Children to the Wampanoag People

In the US, there are nearly 600 federally-recognized tribal nations today and 63 state-recognized tribes. Each has its own rich history, beautiful present, and hopeful future — as well as unique customs, traditions, language and more. Like many first-contact stories, it’s common to know far more about the Pilgrims, their history, and even to be able to name the ship that brought them here but not know the name of the specific tribal nation they encountered — the Wampanoag.

The Wampanoag people have lived in present-day New England for over 12,000 years! Wampanoag means People of the First Light because their land sees the first sunrise each day. You can combat further erasure when sharing about Thanksgiving by being specific when talking about the Wampanoag people.

  • Snuggle up with your kids and check out this video of a Mashpee Wampanoag language protector offering a blessing at the beginning of last year’s Thanksgiving parade. Point out and celebrate the traditional regalia and instruments and marvel at the beautiful language together.

Celebrate and Remember Real People: Who was Tisquantum?

Commonly referred to as “Squanto,” Tisquantum was Patuxet and played a critical role in the Thanksgiving Story. But, years before the first Thanksgiving, Tisquantum was kidnapped, enslaved and taken to England. When he returned to his homeland, he found everyone had died of smallpox brought by early colonizers and he later joined the Wampanoag tribe.

This AMAZING Lesson Plan Booklet created by Dr. Star Yellowfish (Keetoowah Cherokee) and Cholakocee Werito (Muscogee Creek & Navajo) beautifully lays out simple facts about Tisquantum, the 1600s, the English and more in language that school-age learners can understand, and a lot can also be shared with younger children, too! They also included amazing culturally appropriate lessons and craft ideas to replace the common “feather headdress” craft that reinforces harmful stereotypes.

Keep Learning All Year Long!

The most important thing you can do is keep the conversation going long after Thanksgiving and as often as possible, center narratives written and told in Native and Indiegnous peoples’ Own Voices. Here are 6 books we love:

When We Are Kind

  • For ages 2-5

Author Monique Gray Smith (Cree/Lakota) introduces children to important building blocks of empathy — what it feels like when people are kind to us, how we can be kind, and how that makes us feel inside!

What We Love: The representation in Nicole Neidhardt’s (Diné) artwork feature contemporary Indigenous characters with a range of skin tones, ages, and body types. Be sure to point out the child that uses a wheelchair and the family that appears to have two female-presenting caregivers, too!

Things to Know: This book can be purchased with pages that feature both English and Diné!

I Sang You Down From The Stars

  • For ages 2-6

This beautifully illustrated tale follows a mother waiting and preparing for her new baby and celebrates the bond between mother and child!

What We Love: Author Tasha Spillett-Summer (Inniniwak) shares insight into her Nation’s traditional understanding shared by many Indigenous people around the world: that babies choose their parents.

Things to Know: Be sure to check out the note in the back from illustrator Michaela Goade (Tlingit/Haida)! She details how she wove meaningful elements into each page to help visualize the connections to land, culture, famly, and identity.

Sharice’s Big Voice

  • Ages 4-8

US Representative Sharice Davids talks about her life growing up and her journey to becoming one of the first Native women in Congress!

What We Love: This inspirational story shows the power each of us has to educate ourselves and use our voices to fight for progress and change. We love the Native American and LGBTQIA+ representation throughout!

Things to Know:  Kids learn that Representative Davids is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and kids will hear in simple but clear language that long ago, her tribe was forced to move away from their homelands by the US government. At the end of the book, you can learn more about the Ho-Chunk Nation’s culture today.

Clambake: A Wampanoag Tradition

  • For ages 6-12

Long before the first Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag had an annual feast and ceremony known as appanaug, or clambake. This book introduces children to Steven, a young Wampanoag child who is learning all about the clambake and traditional ways of his tribe!

What We Love: Author Russel M. Peters (Mashpee Wampanoag) shares real photos and details about this long-standing tradition in easy-to-understand language that is FULL of knowledge!Things to Know: Although this book is nearly 30 years old, the photos still reinforce that Native people, and particularly the Mashpee Wampanoag, are still here.

We Are Still Here

  • For ages 7-10

It’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day at school, and 12 children each have a topic to present!

What We Love: Each page represents one child’s presentation for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and author Traci Sorrel (Cherokee) uses this clever format to introduce kids to a variety of topics ranging from tribal activism to assimilation to language revival, and each page echos that a chorus of Native Nations today say, “We are still here!”

Things to Know: Though the characters and setting of the book are not real, this book is nonfiction and is a wonderful resource for kids and adults alike! It’s a great starting place to learn a lot about a wide range of topics but also to get curious about learning more.

I Am Not A Number

  • For ages 7-11

Based on the true story of Author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ (Anishinaabe) grandmother, Irene, this book introduces children to residential schools and how forced assimilation sought to strip Native people of culture and identity.

What We Love: This book confronts a painful and dark period of history in the US and Canada and brings it to life through the eyes of a young girl. Through her pain, we see Irene cling to her Anishinaabe identity during her year away, and her family fight to keep her from being forced to return to her residential school.

Things to Know: Read through this one alone first so you’ll feel prepared to answer your child’s questions. They may want to know why this happened to Irene. Reassure them that their feelings are valid — the government wanted to forbid Native people from practicing our/their culture and that is wrong and terrible. Knowing, remembering, and sharing Irene’s story is something we can do to ensure this never happens again.

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