How to Teach Your Kids about Native American History

Dr. Meranda Roberts, a Native American educator and one of the curators of the Apsáalooke Women and Warriors exhibit at the Field Museum, went into work one Monday when a girl told her that she didn’t know any more Native Americans existed.

Interactions like that one and many others have shown Roberts the harm of culture erasure and the need for accurate history.

She notes the vast divide between how people see Native Americans versus how they are as why the Apsáalooke exhibit is so important at The Field Museum.

“The reason why we did Apsáalooke was because of the misconceptions that people have about Native American people in this country,” she says. “There’s this idea of native people being very passive and wearing headdresses and looking one particular way and it’s kind of romanticized us into a group of people who a lot of people don’t know are still here. And the show is a way to reclaim the narrative of who particularly Apsáalooke people are.”

This ideology pervades our understanding of Thanksgiving when students are asked to paint pilgrims and girls are made to wear braids in their hair to learn about the holiday.

But what’s continuously ignored is the gruesome history that led settlers to the table where they shared a meal with the Wampanoags.

“What most of us were taught in school about the Pilgrims and the Indians is not accurate, painting the Pilgrims as the kind benefactors who prepared a big feast and invited the poor Indians to share the food,” says Mary Smith, Interim Executive Director of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston. “The actual events are more complicated. And, for Native Americans, this brief moment of commonality was followed by massacres and eradication that continued for hundreds of years.”

Roberts says that the colonials didn’t see Native Americans as “being a valuable people; we were seen as savages.”

Changing perceptions starts at home, with the way parents talk to their kids about Thanksgiving and geography.

“Parents particularly worry about ‘Oh, my kids can’t handle that’ or ‘that’s too gruesome we can’t tell them about genocide,’” Dr Roberts says. “But we as native people, or at least how I grew up, I grew up knowing that my people were killed and knowing very brutal history. And that was deemed OK. And I wonder what it would look like if we were honest and upfront rather than trying to sugar coat things.”

Roberts’ advice for teaching your kids about of Native Americans during a time of Thanksgiving is simple:

  • Make sure your children know who they are and where they came from. Growing up, Roberts’ parents taught her that it was important she know that she came from leaders and medicine men because as she moves forward, things would look differently than what was told to her.
  • Always be skeptical. “What my work involves is having places like museums situate how they’ve created harmful narratives about who we are as people and how they’ve taught that to the masses for years and how that has been detrimental to our communities,” she says.
  • Acknowledge land history. “I think that maybe telling children that land was occupied long before Plymouth came about or Jamestown or any of these places,” Roberts says. “That there were huge populations here. And explain to them what happened and why is a huge thing.”
  • Know whose land you’re on. “You should know what the efforts are in that city or town that are supporting the Native people who called that land home,” Roberts says.
  • Learn a new point of view. “And that doesn’t necessarily need to include money, it should maybe just be access to certain resources,” she says. “It can mean the door is open for Native people to have a seat at the table in certain cases. It is learning how to tend to the land in the ways in which Indigenous people did.”

“While Native Americans are often thought of in the past, in stereotypical ways, or simply ignored or forgotten, there are vibrant Native American tribes and communities throughout the country,” Smith says. “Tribes are governments and are sovereign nations. Each tribe has its own culture, traditions and stories. And we need to keep in mind that America was not ‘discovered,’ as the First Peoples resided here for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived.”

The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian promotes the public understanding of cultural diversity through first voice perspectives. Their virtual programming is a prime example of history told right: through the eyes of those who lived it.

There are traditions and lessons we can carry from Native people not just for Thanksgiving, but all year.

“While some Native Americans have chosen to reject the Thanksgiving holiday entirely, many embrace the positive message of gratitude and choose to put aside thoughts about the complex history,” Smith says. “Giving thanks is central to Native American culture, and Thanksgiving is simply a day to honor this tradition of gratitude. Throughout history, at this time of the year, Native American tribes celebrated the autumn harvest. So, we can all learn from indigenous peoples this culture of gratitude throughout the year.”

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