Skip to main content

Talking to Young Children About Thanksgiving

Ideas for how to discuss Thanksgiving and American Indians without perpetuating stereotypes.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

As much as some Natives might like for it to, Thanksgiving is not going away. And, in fact, many Natives fully enjoy the sentiments of Thanksgiving—it's the historical and cultural inaccuracies that are troublesome. Many of these can be traced to beliefs propagated over generations in classrooms all over the country.

Take, for example, the children's book StickFiggy Presents The First Thanksgiving, available as an e-book at While not mean-spirited, it presents a version of the story that children will end up (one hopes) having to unlearn later on in their education.

We went looking for some ideas of how to explain Thanksgiving, and Native cultures, in a way that doesn't send their impressionable minds down the wrong track. The list below is adapted from "Teaching Young Children About Native Americans" by Debbie Reese, Nambe Pueblo, who is the author of the popular blog American Indians in Children's Literature.

It's sound advice—think of it as a cheat sheet for the next time a non-Native friend or educator asks "Well, what are we supposed to teach them about Thanksgiving?"

1. At Thanksgiving, shift the focus away from reenacting the "First Thanksgiving." Instead, focus on items children can be thankful for in their own lives, and on their families' celebrations of Thanksgiving at home.1. Provide knowledge about contemporary Native Americans to balance historical information. Teaching about Native Americans exclusively from a historical perspective may perpetuate the idea that they exist only in the past.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

2. Critique a Thanksgiving poster depicting the traditional, stereotyped pilgrim and Indian figures, especially when talking to older elementary school children. Take care to select a picture that most children are familiar with, such as those shown on grocery bags or holiday greeting cards. Critically analyze the poster, noting the many tribes the artist has combined into one general image that fails to provide accurate information about any single tribe.

3. Talk about specific tribes, rather than "Native Americans." For example, discuss the people of Nambe Pueblo, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, the Potawotami. Ideally, choose a tribe with a historical or contemporary role in the local community. This will provide children with culturally specific knowledge (pertaining to a single group) rather than overgeneralized stereotypes.

4. Find images of contemporary children of all colors engaged in their usual, daily activities playing basketball, riding bicycles as well as traditional activities.

5. Cook ethnic foods but be careful not to imply that all members of a particular group eat a specific food.

6. Be specific about which tribes use particular items, when discussing cultural artifacts (such as clothing or housing) and traditional foods. The Plains tribes use feathered headdresses, for example, but not all other tribes use them.