Talking with Children about Native American Heritage Month

Silhouette of adult and child in front of a sunset
Photo by Harika G on Unsplash

By Megan McQueen

One November, I spoke with a neighbor who recently moved from another country. He had a young son who was learning about Thanksgiving in school and asked me what the holiday meant. I asked what his son was learning and heard a typical version describing a celebration of harvest meal between Pilgrims and Indians. I shared that this is what young children are traditionally taught, but that he might want to explore the perspectives of Indigenous peoples about Thanksgiving who sometimes refer to the holiday as the Day of Mourning. As a parent and educator, I try to balance celebrating gratitude and my love of joining together with extended family to share a meal with the fact that the Indigenous people in our country are continuously mistreated by exploring with my own family how we can help. As with all heritage/history months, learning about Native Americans can happen all year long. We take special focus this month to consider how we can improve upon our efforts and continue our learning and unlearning.

Here are some suggestions to support learning and growth with our children at home:

Educate Yourself: There is a wide diversity of Indigenous tribes in our country. Customs, languages, dress, and habits vary. Stereotypes are harmful and wrong. As you are learning with your family, try to be tribal-specific. Listen to Native people share their experiences. Understand that many of us learned a white-washed version of Thanksgiving and Indigenous peoples’ experience. Read about the assimilation attempts used in boarding schools for Native children. Start noticing phrases and words that may be offensive. Words may be sacred and shifting our language can be inclusive. Eliminate phrases/words such as: my tribe, spirit animal, Indian giver and more. If you are unsure, think of another phrase to use.

Educate Your Child(ren): You might begin by asking your children what they know about Indigenous People or Native Americans. Look at a map together to learn the names of tribes who live or lived where you do. See what else you can learn about your local tribes. How do/did they connect with the land? What languages are/were spoken? What did their traditional dress and shelter look like? Acknowledge that present day tribe members often live in homes just as any other community members and dress similarly too. When your children are old enough, help them understand what colonists did as they arrived in this country. It is our responsibility as Americans to understand our past so we can improve life for all the people who live here. 

Engage in Indigenous Rights Issues: Finding ways to turn our childrens’ feelings into action can help them find their advocacy voice. Empowering our children with the truth and steps they can take to create positive impacts will help them process hard history while building their resilience and empathy. Connect with local tribes to see how you can support their efforts. This is also a way to learn more about the place where you live and your ecological connection to it. Another way to become more connected to your natural environment is to garden and to take care of the natural world around you. Consider seeking out national Indigenous efforts that you can support with your time and money. Ask your family how you can work on environmental issues. Begin asking yourselves when shopping if it is something truly needed. How was the object made and by whom? Rethink Black Friday and consider engaging in Buy Nothing Day and Opt Outside Day instead. Consider sharing your wealth when possible with Indigeneous organizations through donations and purchases

Thanksgiving: You may still want to celebrate Thanksgiving with your family. Instead of recreating “The First Thanksgiving,” shift the focus to gratitude. Name and write down all that makes your family feel thankful. Bonus points if you have prompts to spark conversation. When talking about Native Americans, speak in present tense so your children know Indigeneous people are alive and part of your community today. Consider eating locally grown foods as Native people historically have. This is an opportunity to connect with your community, local Tribes, and the Earth as well as your family.

Picture Books:

Books for Middle Grade/Teens:

Books for Adults:

Megan McQueen is a warmhearted teacher, coach, consultant, and writer. She grounds her work in empathetic education, importing a strong sense of community and social skills to those with which she works. Megan prioritizes emotional learning and problem solving skills. When not at work, she is most likely playing with her husband, two children, and pup.

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